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Worthy of Trust and Confidence

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President Bartlet: Sam, you're gonna run for president one day. Don't be scared. You can do it. I believe in you.
The West Wing 3.14 "Hartsfield's Landing"

***

Agent Brad by trolleys

"It signals to the world that we don't follow through," General Hart huffed, just this side of complaining.

Nate took a breath and focused on the calming trees painted on the walls of the Mural Room. "To follow through implies a clear purpose, which we've never had beyond getting bin Laden, which I needn't remind you, gentlemen, it took us a decade to do. That was six years ago. Beyond that our stated objectives have been to create a stable government and end the support for terrorism, all hazy, amorphous goals to which we're no closer."

"You'll be saying that five thousand Americans are dead for nothing," Admiral Walker put in, like it was personally Nate's fault.

Fuck the trees. There was no calm when you had the Joint Chiefs lecturing you.

Nate pinned Walker with a look: "So we should keep our troops on the ground, allow more to die. For what? To make the previous deaths meaningful?"

"Now look here—the men in this room have a combined experience of more than a century serving in the armed forces," General Hart said.

Nate tapped his finger on the arm of his leather executive chair. "And the man in this chair actually served on the ground, in this war. But more importantly, the man sitting in that round room twenty feet from us has made his decision."

Admiral Walker forged ahead. "A decision with long-term implications for America's power abroad that I'm not sure you fully appreciate. Relinquishing such a strategic foothold in the Middle East has consequences far beyond the here and now."

Nate sat back and tried not to grip the arms of the chair. It'd be a shame to ruin nice leather.

"That's not your decision," he said.

"We're all advisers to President Seaborn."

"Yes. The difference is I was elected and you were not." Nate swept his gaze around the table, taking in the stubborn set of every distinguished jaw. They were getting nowhere. He looked at each of them, in the eye. "The president asked me to meet with you informally, without the usual hangers-on, and I appreciate your willingness to come here and say what you really think, but the argument about this as a policy is done. It has been decided."

"Based on your recommendation," General Estrada noted.

Nate leaned forward. "Based on the will of the people, general. We serve at their behest and you serve at President Seaborn's pleasure, so it's time to get on board and work through the logistics. And to have your commands do the same."

Mark, still settling in as his acting chief of staff, appeared at his elbow. "Excuse me, Mr. Vice President. The president has an old friend he'd like you to see."

Nate looked at him, surprised at the use of the president's emergency phrase. But Mark was terrible at hiding things and didn't seem alarmed, so it was probably just Sam rescuing him.

Nate nodded and eyed the men in the room. "We were at a stopping point anyway. If you gents will excuse me."

Nate stood and walked to the door, clocking the Joint Chiefs pointedly remaining seated. He stepped out of the Mural Room and sighed. "Stubborn old bastards," he muttered.

"Yes, sir," Mark said.

Intellectually, Nate was grateful that Sam trusted him enough to let him deal with the Joint Chiefs. President Bartlet had been far more standoffish with Hoynes when Sam was first in the White House. But in moments like these, it felt a little like Sam was using him to dodge a bullet.

It was a bullet he'd happily take, but still.

Nate automatically checked his phone as he walked down the hall, his Secret Service detail fanning out around him like a conspicuously silent swarm of bees. Two text messages in the last hour.

Thinking of you today. xoxo Mom

Condolences on your former anniversary, bro. Sucks that your wife died. Wanna come by later and get smashed?

Nate snorted at Corinne's appalling lack of tact. They texted him every year on this day, much like he visited Kara's grave every year on the anniversary of her death. Some people thought it was morbid, like he was clinging to the past, but he found it comforting.

He shook off those thoughts, turning his attention back to the issue at hand, nodding to staffers as they stepped aside for him, still not used to the deference, the looks, all the attention. "They're lecturing me when they've known about this policy change since the campaign."

"Yes, sir."

"Like I'm going to suddenly reverse eighteen months of campaigning, two months of waiting, two months in office, and for what?"

"Yes, sir."

Nate stopped at the threshold to the Oval's outer office. He turned a frank look on Mark, whose timidity seemed permanently ingrained these days.

God, he missed Lise. He needed his chief of staff back.

"Word of advice: while it may generally pay to be a yes-man in politics, I don't operate that way."

"Ye—" Mark stopped short, an awkward silence falling instead.

Nate took pity on him and ducked into the Oval's outer office, nodding at the secretaries in greeting. "Morning, Bonnie, Ginger."

"Good morning, Mr. Vice President," they chorused as they sorted briefing books and answered phones. "You can go on in," Bonnie said.

Nate nodded in thanks and walked into the Oval Office, pausing just slightly on the threshold to take in the storied, hallowed room. It might someday get old...but it hadn't happened yet.

The president and first lady were both waiting, huddled with Josh by the Resolute desk, early morning light shining down on them like God's favored children.

Ainsley would get a kick out of that. He might share it with her when she wasn't standing in the Oval with the president and chief of staff. Waiting for him.

"Sorry to interrupt your meeting with the Joint Chiefs," Sam called, nodding at Josh. "Thank you, Josh."

"Thank you, Mr. President." Josh nodded at Nate on his way out, clapping a hand on his shoulder.

"Please, God, interrupt," Nate muttered, walking over to them. "It's all, 'now look here' this and 'let me tell you, son,' that." Nate stopped as a thought hit him. "You apologized for calling me out of the meeting," he said slowly. "You didn't intend to rescue me from the meeting."

Sam seemed faintly chagrined. "Ah, no."

"You and the first lady were waiting..."

"Ainsley," she reminded him, quite insistent about the first name thing.

But Nate's mind was busy working through all the possibilities. "If you were firing me you'd do it one-on-one—"

"Technically-speaking, I can't fire you," Sam pointed out, ever-precise.

"If it were political Josh would have stayed," Nate continued. Josh's hand on his shoulder took on a more worrisome context. "You used your emergency code phrase to call me out of my meeting." He met the president's eyes, noting his unusually somber demeanor. "I assume it's not good news."

"When have we ever been that lucky?" Sam picked up a folder from his desk. "The White House has received a number of threats recently, enough to concern the Secret Service, and I'm inclined to listen to the people protecting all our lives."

Nate shrugged. "I've gotten death threats for years, even before the campaign. Goes with the territory."

"No—I'm sorry, Nate, that's not what I meant. The threats weren't against you. Unfortunately they're focused on a more vulnerable target."

Nate's pulse pounded in his ears. One thing about losing his wife, it significantly narrowed the list of his vulnerabilities. To one person, really: "Jackie."

Time slowed as his heartbeat continued to ring loud in his ears. Someone was threatening to kill his daughter. Icy rage flowed through him, the tang of adrenaline at the back of his throat. He balled his hands into fists, rough scrape of nails against flesh.

Sam nodded. "As daughter of the vice president, she is mandated a protective detail. I'm upping that protection and before you start, I don't give a damn how you feel about it. A threat against you is a threat against me and I simply won't allow it." He paused and Nate could see him get hold of his anger. Part of him was grateful for that. The other part wanted to break things.

"Vince is standing outside, ready to go over the particulars with you," Sam said. More quietly, he added, "They'll find whoever sent these threats, Nate. This is what they do. Until then, Jackie will have the best we've got."

Nate's jaw worked. But that warranted a response, so he went with the simple. "Thank you, Mr. President."

Nate felt Ainsley squeeze his arm. He looked at her hand, nails blood red set against his charcoal suit. This was Ainsley trying to comfort him. He should probably try not to freak her the fuck out, then.

Sam nodded. He shot Ainsley a look, tossed the folder down on his desk, and headed out the door.

Ainsley stayed close for another moment before stepping aside, angling toward the door. "You know," she mused, "I've never actually seen your killer instinct before."

Nate's eyes flicked to hers. To her credit, she didn't even twitch; Nate had seen men wither under the look he knew he wore.

"I'll try not to scare the kids."

With a ghost of a smile, Ainsley left.

***

Nate was taking a meeting in the Oval Office without the president. The thought should send him reeling, it should be huge...but he couldn't even muster more than a passing acknowledgment in the face of all the shit scattering his thoughts. Most prominently that this man in front of him, Vince Collins, held the key to his daughter's safety. It had been true for a while, but the threats made it so much more visceral. Nate couldn't shake the need to take the reins himself.

"You're an expert at what you do and generally, I wouldn't deign to tell the Assistant Director of the Office of Protective Operations how to do his job..." Nate trailed off.

"But," Vince prompted.

"But I know your strategy has also been to blend in with the crowd, be incognito, wear Birkenstocks. When it comes to my daughter, I don't want subtlety. I don't want stealth. I want the most terrifying, intimidating, mess-with-me-and-you-will-die motherfucker you've got and I want everyone to see him. She can hate me all she wants when she's a teenager, but I won't have her harmed because zealots think her father defiled the holy land. Or whatever the complaint is this week," he added.

Vince studied him for a moment, then nodded. "I think we can accommodate that, sir."

"Good."

"If you're up for it, I do believe I have someone who fits the bill here now. You should meet him."

Nate paused for a moment as that sunk in. "So that whole badass motherfucker routine was totally unnecessary."

Ever diplomatic, Vince hedged: "I appreciated the sentiment, sir."

Nate smiled tightly and waved him on. Vince opened the door and nodded. He stepped aside and said, "Mr. Vice President, I believe you might be familiar with Special Agent Colbert."

The world stilled.

And in walked Brad. Black suit. Black tie. Perfect.

The cognitive dissonance hit him like a punch to the solar plexus—Brad in Iraq, dirty and haunted and beautiful, overlaying Brad in Oceanside, casual and relaxed and beautiful, overlaying Brad here, now, shiny and buttoned-up and still so goddamn beautiful.

Brad's blond hair was short, but no longer buzzed. There were a few more lines around his eyes, but they were as sharp as ever. He looked like he'd walked right off a California beach and was just as enticing. Nate hadn't seen him in years.

There was so much to process, Nate didn't even know how to begin—Jackie was in danger and Brad was—and this was not the time to be distracted by—

Fuck.

Nate blinked once, hard, firmly establishing Brad in the present. Here to do a job and looking at Nate like he knew exactly what was going through his mind. Looking a little proud that he'd managed to sneak up on Nate.

Well. Nate certainly knew what to do with that kind of challenge. "Worthy of trust and confidence, my ass," he accused.

"You should never take your eye off a Jew...Mr. Vice President," Brad returned, both solemn and pointed.

In his peripheral, Vince's mouth opened in surprise. He collected himself and hastily stepped in: "Special Agent Colbert will head up your daughter's investigative detail. He'll oversee her augmented security, operating conjointly with her permanent detail, while also investigating the threats. I hope that's amenable to you, sir."

"Special Agent Colbert," Nate mocked, still focused on Brad. "And here I bought all the whispered secret mission bullshit."

"Wasn't bullshit," Brad said. "I merely failed to specify who tasked said missions."

"Because I would never ask." Nate shook his head, at himself as much as at Brad. "Who else? I heard about Walt."

"A few others," Brad said vaguely. He grimaced. "The sister-fucking limpet."

"Tell Ray he better watch his mouth. Vince, you certainly don't do things by halves." A quick glance over showed that Vince was entirely out of his depth. Nate briefly wondered how this conversation would seem to an outsider, but dismissed the thought as unimportant just as quickly.

Nate flicked his eyes back to Brad. "Yes, he'll do. He's assembling his own team, I take it?"

Brad stiffened, which told Nate everything he needed to know. Vince reassured, "We're making every effort to—"

Nate rounded on him. "Don't politispeak me. I have a degree in that shit and we all know what it means. This is my daughter. Brad's choices are my choices, so give him who he wants."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Vice President," Vince said, flat, not happy about it but unwilling to argue. Which was really all that Nate required.

The tightness around Brad's eyes eased. His lips curled in the suggestion of a smile. Instinctively Nate started to return it—

Then he stopped himself. He couldn't be falling into those old habits. That way only led to madness. Besides, they had shit to discuss.

Nate addressed Vince again: "Good. Then I'll let you get to it. Brad and I need to go over some things, so if you'll excuse us." He didn't wait for a response, simply walked out, expecting that Brad would follow.

He wasn't disappointed, the whisper of Brad's suit announcing his presence—behind Nate and slightly to his right, watching his back—as loud as a bullhorn. Something in Nate eased at that. They were still in sync. Even after all this time.

He tried not to dwell on that as he escorted Brad along the quick walk down the hall, back to his own turf, shutting his office door to forestall Mark. He gestured Brad to a chair as he walked to his desk. "I want daily briefings—"

"No, sir."

The flat-out refusal brought Nate up short. "Excuse me?"

Brad stood before him, unyielding as ever. "I said, 'no, sir.' It's generally used to indicate that there's no fucking way that's gonna happen, though of course it depends on context."

That old heat swept through Nate, the uncomfortable itch under his skin that surfaced every time Brad was disappointed in him, I think we can take it from here, sir ringing in his ears. "And why not?"

"You have more important things to do."

Nate went stony. "There's nothing more important to do."

Irritation at his own mistake flicked across Brad's expression. "You're a man of some stature, tasked with vital things, like looking pretty for the cameras, so unless your many years of government service has proved that micromanaging talented, capable underlings results in higher productivity, I got this. Sir."

Nate stared at him for a beat, instincts at war with logic.

Brad clocked it. He softened his tone. "The goal of people like this is to get a reaction—to intimidate, to frighten, to get you to change your behavior. That can't happen. They don't get to win. And I'm here to make sure of it."

Nate released a breath and dropped into his chair. "Fuck, I hate that you're right."

"You should be used to the feeling," Brad reminded him.

Nate swallowed against the old instinctive want, even at the most inappropriate times. He should be used to that feeling, too. "Cocky motherfucker."

"You know it. Well, now that we've had our first fight..."

Unbidden, Nate's mind went to the make-up sex that should follow. Brad, being Brad, picked up on it, cocking his head at Nate with a glint of amusement.

"I was going to say we'll do just fine, but now I want to be in your head," Brad said, suggestive.

Nate smiled tightly and didn't engage, staying all-business. As a coping mechanism, it had served him well in the past. He'd have to unearth all his old defenses and hope they held. Especially when everything in him wanted to fall into their old rapport, like nothing had changed. "I want to introduce you to Jackie so she knows who you are."

"Introduce me again," Brad pointed out.

"As unforgettable as you are, Brad, I'm pretty sure she won't remember the first time you met. She was a toddler at the time."

"Unforgettable, am I?"

"For one reason or another," he said, dry. "But take heart: you're not wholly forgotten. She still loves that penguin you gave her. Named it Mr. Penguin. She won't sleep without it."

"Your progeny's creative naming skills astound me."

"Well, she was barely eighteen months old. Getting 'penguin' was pretty much a coup."

Brad smiled, slow and fond. After a moment he looked away, checking their surroundings, probably a reflex at this point. "Introductions after school, then?"

Nate nodded, already mentally nixing his afternoon meetings. "Celia's gonna love you for torpedoing my entire schedule."

"I look forward to winning her over."

He probably would, too. When it came to Brad, people either loved him or feared him. Or both. Machiavelli would be so proud.

Nate simply nodded his head toward the door. "Out. I have a staff meeting. No changing my behavior now," Nate said, pointed.

Brad smirked, tipped two fingers in a lazy salute, and sauntered out.

In the silence, Nate simply breathed. Without the distraction of Brad, without decisions to make or professionalism to maintain, he couldn't stop the bone-deep worry from taking hold. He slumped forward, head in his hands, the weight of events crashing into him like the concussive force of thousand-pound. Only this airstrike was danger-close, beyond his control, and he had no idea when it'd end.

Fuck.

***

"Why would we do that?" Nate asked sharply, looking up from his briefing book, eyes boring into Stuart. He expected better from his top foreign policy advisor.

Stuart was already backpedaling, flush rising up from the collar of his starched white shirt. "I simply meant—"

"I know what you meant. I'm asking, why would we do that?"

"Mr. Vice President—" Stuart started again, voice placating.

Nate had no problem stopping him there. "Eighteen months we spent campaigning, eighteen months."

"Sir—"

"There was no confusion about our stance on Afghanistan, a stance supported by a majority of Americans, who by the way, overwhelmingly voted this president into office," Nate said. "Eighteen months, followed by another two months waiting for the other guy to get out, while having to run down the clock on the extension of forces agreement. And now it's been another two months of our own military commanders leaking internal discussions to box us in politically. In all of that time, we've had one consistent foreign policy goal: get the remaining troops out of Afghanistan. So why in the ninth circle of hell would you suggest another extension of forces agreement?"

Silence. Stuart was fully-flushed now, eyes downcast, no longer willing to argue the point.

"Anyone?" Nate swept his eyes around the room. No one met his gaze. His own guys. Christ.

"We're done here," Nate said, closing his briefing book with a precise snap.

The foreign policy team quickly gathered their belongings and slipped out, no dallying or arguing amongst each other like usual. At least they weren't completely inept at reading a room.

Nate stalked over to his side door and wrenched it open. At his desk, Mark visibly startled, recovered, and quickly stood.

"Oh, dammit. I forgot. Sorry—just, never mind," Nate said. He shut the door on Mark's surprised expression.

"Celia, get me Lise, please!" he called.

He heard low murmurs from the outer office, then Celia appeared in the doorway. "That's Lise, who says to tell you she's supposed to be lessening her stress load while on bed rest, you—and I'm quoting—'slave-driving boy king.'"

Nate snorted and felt the tension in his shoulders ease. He picked up the phone and sank into his chair, swiveling it back and forth. "I really needed that."

"I'd imagine so given you're already calling me and the day has barely begun." Her voice held no reproach, though, and something in him relaxed further. "I'm going to hazard a guess and say defense."

"I just got sandbagged by my own guys. And then I walked into your office to tell you and almost gave Mark a heart attack."

"Clearly this is all my fault."

"I was gonna go with your husband's, but if you want to take ownership..."

"I'll tell him. Who was it?" she asked, switching topics on the fly and reading his mind in that way Nate desperately missed.

"Stuart."

"Really. Huh. Well, I do believe you've run smack into the defense contractor wall of Washington."

"Almost two years," Nate protested.

Lise laughed. At him, he was sure.

"Saying the same damn thing. Did everyone miss the memo?" Nate forged on.

"I'm shocked to hear that no one believes the word of a politician. The world, it spins."

"I'd also point out it's the right thing to do."

"Defense contractors make more money when troops are in the field. Peace is hell on the bottom line," she said simply, like that wasn't an abhorrent offense to their ideals, their history, their humanity.

"And they say you lose your soul in DC," he murmured.

"Oh, sir, there's no losing anything. One trades it in strategically. But don't worry; I've got you covered. You go on being an idealist."

"Gee, I feel so much better," he said, laying on the sarcasm.

"Of course you do. Admit it, you'd be lost without me."

"I agree—so where the hell are you?"

"In bed. My offspring is more important than you. And I'm sure he won't whine nearly so much."

"Traitor," Nate muttered darkly. She just laughed lightly again and Nate smiled despite himself, rush of affection ever-present, even as the world went to hell around them.

Finally, she spoke up again, voice thoughtful. "You should have Steve talk to McManus. The support of the chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee could go a long way."

"No."

"Sir—"

"I'll talk to McManus myself," Nate clarified.

"Okay, then." She paused, far too careful. "I...heard."

"Yeah," he said roughly. He sank further into his chair, the thought of Jackie in danger pitching his stomach. "This day just keeps getting better."

***

Nate had Celia reschedule the rest of his day, delegating what he could and bowing out of the rest. He told his detail to take him to the Naval Observatory, his home-away-from-home that still felt like it belonged to a stranger; he wanted to spend some time with Jackie.

Nate paused at his study door. Vicky didn't see him yet, watching over her two kids and Jackie with an amused smile. Once again he thanked God for his sister, that she stepped in when he couldn't. That his whole family did, really. He wouldn't have made it this far without them. At times it was so humbling he couldn't even comprehend it.

Vicky finally noticed him, her green eyes widening. Guilt crept through Nate at that; his presence was the surprise, not his absence. Sometimes he wished that were different, but making it so was another thing entirely.

Jackie clocked Vicky's attention and beamed over at him with the kind of purity only a child could muster. "Daddy! Look, I'm gonna win." She gestured to the teetering Jenga tower, having just completed her turn.

"Are not," Maddy instantly shot back.

"It's not about winning, it's about having fun, right?" Nate asked, trying to assuage both of them.

Jackie looked at him like he'd grown another head. "No." She promptly returned her focus to the game.

Nate laughed under his breath as Vicky came over to him, pulling him into a careful hug. "What, did they give you the day off? This is what my tax dollars are paying for?"

"I'm worth every penny."

She looked at his face for a moment. "And now for the serious answer..."

Nate glanced at the kids, who were still engrossed, Jackie with a bright pink stain down her white uniform shirt—strawberry yogurt, no doubt—then pitched his voice low. "The Secret Service intercepted some threatening letters sent to Jackie. They've beefed up her security, but I am playing the overprotective father card, as is my due."

"Threats? Jesus, Nate—"

"Don't worry. They've assigned a whole team to augment her security detail and investigate the threats. It's some of my platoon from Iraq; they're rock solid. We'll find who sent the letters."

"If you say so." But Vicky couldn't hide her worry. She leaned into him and Nate obligingly wrapped a comforting arm around her.

"Everything will be fine," Nate murmured, sounding so sure he almost believed himself.

Maybe he had a future in politics after all.

***

After losing the round of Jenga to her cousins, Jackie threw herself into beating the pants off them the next time—a competitive streak in his child, who would've thought?—ignoring Nate entirely. On some level it was comforting; at least Jackie didn't find his presence notable at all. Watching her play, reminding himself that she was safe and happy and really quite deft with the blocks, some of the blind fear drained from Nate. In its wake, he was just tired.

Nate's stomach grumbled at him then. He hadn't touched lunch at all.

Excusing himself from Vicky, he headed for the kitchen—

And heard them before he even made it down the stairs: Walt and Ray, trading amused barbs, Ray obviously warming to a topic. It was perversely comforting to know that some things stayed the same.

"—if we were smart we'd give every one of our pet psychos a prescription for medical marijuana. You threaten the life of the president? You get the ganja. Because think about it—after you smoke out, what do you want to do? You want to sit on your couch in your underwear eating Cheese Nips and giggling at infomercials all day. It's preventative fucking medicine!"

Nate snorted, then headed around the corner and into the kitchen, greeting them. "Walt, Ray. I really enjoyed your congratulatory email after the election," he said to Ray.

Ray raised his cup of coffee in salute, coming dangerously close to splashing it all over the counter. "Damn right. I hope you put that shit up and framed it. Your Senate office could use some sprucing up. And you can make those blowhards admire the fuck out of it when they come by to kiss the ring."

"Yeah, that's totally how it works," Nate shot back.

Ray scoffed. "Don't bullshit us. Cheney ran Congress from that office. It ain't nothing. And no one's buying your little 'man of the people' act."

Walt winced. "Ray..."

"So, to recap, you've maligned my Senate office décor and compared me to Dick Cheney. Any other shots you want to take right off the bat?" Nate asked, curious despite himself.

"Oh, please, because you're so offended. Totes."

Nate cracked a grin, warm familiarity mixing with an overwhelming sense of rightness deep in his chest. "It's good to see you both."

Walt smiled back, his expression radiating welcome. "You, too, Captain."

It was verging on becoming a moment...so naturally Ray stepped in, holding up a staying hand. "Nope! Don't even try buttering us up. Brad has inured us to your recon attempts. We won't tell you anything. Well, not unless you bribe us with something really cool like classic vinyl or blowjobs."

"Blowjobs it is, then," Nate deadpanned.

Walt choked on a laugh beside him and Ray's expression went giddy, like—

"Oh, man, I cannot wait to tell Brad this. He'll never—" Ray was interrupted by the funkedelic trilling of his phone. "Excuse me, I have to go talk to my pet psycho," Ray said officiously, answering the call. "Harold! How's my favorite target of the grand government conspiracy?"

Nate grinned and glanced at Walt, who returned the smile, but with measurably more exasperation. He drank from his own mug, the coffeemaker warming beside him.

Nate grabbed a mug and helped himself. "You guys transitioned in?" he asked, determinedly not probing. Much.

"All squared away, sir. We're on eight-hour rotating shifts, one day off a week. Even memorized the AO and met the rest of the team."

Ray looked very serious and nodded into his phone. "But ninja assassins never stray that far from the mothership. C'mon, dude, we both know they turn to bubbles if they aren't tethered."

Nate blinked, but didn't take the bait. "How'd Jackie's detail react to Brad's little coup?"

No one had said as much, but Brad would have taken over. It was Brad, after all.

The twinkle in Walt's eyes gave Nate confirmation he didn't really need. It was a warm sort of satisfaction that yeah, he still knew Brad, regardless of time and space.

Walt shrugged away the concern. "They're cool. Brad shuffled the schedules so it works better. Most of 'em are pretty happy."

"And the rest are terrified," Nate muttered, at which Walt snorted.

Nate looked around pointedly. "Where is Brad, anyway?"

"Sidwell Friends School. Giving them a rundown of the new state of affairs. He'll be back soon."

Across the kitchen, Ray nodded into his phone. "The rightful King of England, I know."

Nope, he couldn't let that one go. "Does Ray think he's helping?"

"That's what I said," Walt agreed. "But it's not like you can appeal to rationality with presidential stalkers. Person sidesteps regular thought and talks straight to their Id or somethin.' HQ gives him all the really deluded ones to check on and he keeps 'em in line."

"Harry, buddy, I gots to go. Stay out of trouble and keep popping those pills." Ray ended the call and grinned, holding out his arms like he would accept all the world's praise now. "I am the motherfuckin' psycho whisperer. Who woulda thought I'd grow up to tell people to keep taking drugs?"

"You'd do that anyway," Walt said, unimpressed.

"Yeah, but now I get paid for it by the US government."

***

Brad arrived around the time Vicky and the kids were leaving. He held the door for them, blue eyes steady on Nate as Vicky gave him one last hug. "You gonna be okay alone tonight?" she asked, her way of bringing up Kara without actually getting into it.

"It's just another day," Nate said easily. He hoped he sounded convincing.

Vicky looked like she didn't believe him, but nodded anyway, for which he was eternally grateful. "See you guys tomorrow. Say goodbye to Uncle Nate, kids."

"Bye!" Maddy and Ben chorused from the back of the waiting black SUV, doors open. Nate smiled and raised a hand, watching until Vicky got in and the car took off.

Then he turned to Brad. "Jackie now?"

Brad gestured for him to lead the way.

They found her curled over a book in the study, forehead creased in concentration. She looked up when Nate entered, greeting him with: "There are trees that are five thousand years old, Daddy."

Seven years old and reading about ancient trees. Typical. Nate just nodded and ran with it. "I know. Like the Methuselah tree, right?"

"Yeah, but the oldest one doesn't have a name."

"Someone should get on that."

"I think there's time," Jackie said seriously, only the glint in her eyes giving away that she was poking fun at him.

Nate smiled. "Cheeky, aren't you? Come here, I want you to meet someone." He nodded at Brad as Jackie set down her book. "Jackie, this is Special Agent Colbert. He'll be part of your security team from now on."

Brad approached and sank down to her level. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Fick."

Jackie stayed quiet and studied Brad for a beat, her brow furrowed and green eyes penetrating. Nate's mother always said how much she looked like Nate when she did that.

It didn't faze Brad in the slightest. He simply looked right back.

After a long beat, Nate started to worry. Jackie was not the shy, silent type. More like the 'rush in, take no prisoners' type. Her parentage worked against her there, poor kid.

Jackie suddenly stood and bolted from the room, fast as seven-year-old legs could carry her.

Nate hesitated. He looked at Brad and then headed for the door. "I'm sorry. I don't know—she's never done that before." He walked out to an empty hallway. "Jackie—" he called.

Her voice echoed as she shouted back: "Daddy, stay there!"

Nate frowned and walked back into the study, only to find Brad smirking at him. "What?"

"She certainly issues orders like a Fick."

The side door opened and Jackie skipped through, leaving it ajar behind her and showing a straight shot through the anteroom and into Nate's bedroom. What had she been doing—

"Little person knows the AO," Brad murmured.

"I found it!" Jackie crowed as she handed Nate a familiar frame and pointed. "That's you," she told Brad eagerly.

Relief swept through Nate and he laughed lightly, dropping onto one of the plush couches as he examined the old photo. "How did you even remember that?"

"Observe everything, admire nothing," Jackie recited with a mischievous grin as she grabbed his tie and tried to climb onto his lap.

Nate handed the frame off to Brad and pulled her up so she didn't damage anything valuable. "Now you're mocking me, too? Aunt Corinne's a terrible influence."

"Yessir, LT," Jackie shot back like the smartass she was. She so reminded him of Kara sometimes.

"That's Captain to you," Nate corrected, tickling her. She laughed and tried to squirm away.

Brad made a soft, amused sound. Nate looked up to find him studying the picture, radiating warmth. He noticed Nate looking and cleared his expression. "Nice photograph, sir. Rolling Stone perfectly captured the essentials of everyone, including Person's inability to pour food in his mouth."

"It is his defining characteristic."

Brad's lips quirked. He handed the frame back. "And what are the odds—we're all still alive."

Nate felt his smile flicker, but Jackie had latched onto the picture again, pointing at Nate this time. "How come you have a hat and no one else does?"

Nate glanced down. He'd clearly been doing the rounds and had stopped by Two-One Alpha in the midst of some anecdote of Brad's. Wright had taken the picture as Brad had delivered the punchline, all laughing eyes and restrained little smile. Ray grinned wide, Elvis glasses on and strawberry milkshake all over himself. Walt was looking down, like he should apologize for laughing, whereas Trombley slept in the backseat, completely unaware. Espera had a classic "bitch, please" expression on his face as Kocher clapped him on the shoulder. Even Nate grinned, propped up against the Humvee, separate but still somehow a part of the group.

"Helmet, honey. I must've been walking around," he said absently. He didn't even remember what Brad had been saying; after so many years it all blurred into one long, surreal roadtrip.

Nate looked back up at Brad. Some things stuck out, though.

"I have to wear my helmet when I ride my bike," Jackie informed Brad.

"Safety first," Brad nodded.

***

"Choirboy? My new codename is Choirboy?" Nate accused Brad as he appeared in his study doorway later that night.

Brad seemed remarkably unperturbed at finding himself in an inquisition, not even hesitating at the threshold, walking in like he did it every day. "Yes, sir," he said, tone implying it was nothing, commentary on the weather, unimportant.

Brad stopped in front of Nate's desk and shifted to attention, blank-faced as ever, but something amused lurked in the corners of his eyes. "My shift is over and I'm here to reassure you that no harm befell your daughter, despite the grave existential threat presented by Candyland."

Nate knew he was making a point—of the uselessness of wanting daily updates, the mundanity of Jackie's everyday life—but underneath it was reassurance, the mockery a way for Brad to say I got your back.

And the thing of it was...it did make Nate feel better. Damn him.

So Nate ignored the jab and jumped back to the codename thing. "You do realize I was never in the choir? Technically, it should be altar boy."

"Choirboy sounds funnier. It's the hard c," Brad replied, meeting Nate's eyes then, something suggestive lurking in his words.

Nate pushed through it, pretended like it didn't affect him. "And Jackie gets Crackerjack. To be clear: my daughter has a cooler codename than I do?"

"It's only fair given you chose to run for office and she's just along for the ride."

"You couldn't have gone with Dartmouth? Josh is Harvard; the president's was formerly Princeton...Dartmouth was too much to ask?"

"How pedestrian," Brad dismissed. "Any consolation, the runner-up was Jarhead for you and Jellybean for your esteemed offspring."

"Jarhead or Choirboy. I'm sensing that members of the Secret Service hold my offspring in much higher esteem than they hold me."

"They like you enough to be familiar with you. Which I will put a stop to post-haste if you so desire. Sir."

Well, when he put it like that. "Choirboy," Nate muttered, shaking his head.

"It's better than Prettyboy," Brad said, deadpan.

Nate felt heat crawl up his neck, but he didn't engage on that one, either. Sometimes it felt like any conversation with Brad was a careful navigation around things he couldn't touch.

Just like the good old days.

Nate refocused the conversation in a safer direction: "So they like me enough to be familiar with me?"

"Is there a question in there or were you simply restating something for the record?"

"I'm not a lawyer, this isn't court, and there is no record. But I am willing to draw on our old friendship to find out what the scuttlebutt is."

"Friends, are we?" Brad murmured, something penetrating to his tone.

Nate couldn't go there, so he brazened his way through it. "We civilian overlords never get to hear the agents' perspective. I want to know what they think."

Brad shot him a look that said he wasn't allowed to say.

Nate raised an eyebrow that called bullshit.

Brad paused a beat, then smirked, obviously figuring out how he could enjoy this. "At first they worried that you'd be another Hoynes, expecting the Service to ferry around all your tail. Legitimately, even, given that you're widowed. You haven't, which has been a great relief to your detail. Since then..." Brad trailed off purposefully, a ploy to get Nate to ask.

Of course Nate asked. He always did dance to Brad's tune. "What? They certainly haven't had to manage secret assignations."

"Precisely. That's just wrong, sir. Single, second most powerful man in the world—"

"Oh, please—"

"—women mailing you their underwear—we have the evidence; no use denying it. No one can figure out how the hell you manage celibacy."

"Practice," Nate said promptly, looking away.

"Apparently."

"Single fatherhood doesn't exactly lend itself to a social life, Brad. For me, anyway."

"You have your parents and sisters all nearby. If you didn't want to bother them, I'm sure childcare could be otherwise arranged. And the vice president has only one duty: wait for the president to die. Anyone else in your position would...take due advantage."

"Guess I'm not anyone else."

"No, you are not," Brad agreed quietly.

Nate met his eyes, the air vibrating between them, full of the old, familiar tension that time hadn't dulled. Nate still didn't know what it meant, not on Brad's side, and he couldn't do anything about it, regardless.

After a beat of silence, Nate nodded, putting some finality, some distance into it. "Thanks for the update."

"Goodnight, Mr. Vice President," Brad said, low. Then he was gone.

His presence lingered.

***

Nate stared forlornly at their bedroom ceiling, watching the play of early morning sunlight. The pillow was soft underneath his head, having taken a beating in his disturbed sleep. The white sheets twined around him smelled comforting, a mix of fabric softener and Kara's shampoo. It didn't soothe him as it usually did.

"Fucked up doesn't begin to cover it. I should never have put Jackie in this position. I could have refused to be on the ticket, but I wanted to make a difference." Nate trailed off. How many times did that have to get him in trouble before he learned his lesson? "What am I going to do?"

Kara propped herself up against the blond wood of their headboard, her ponytail mussed, her blue eyes sleep-soft and yet wholly unimpressed. "What are you gonna do?" she asked, disbelief thick in her voice. "You're an upper-middleclass white guy who's had every advantage, bouncing from Ivy League to officer to CEO to Vice President of the United States. And now your unimpeded rise into the upper echelons of power has hit a speedbump and you're wringing your hands? Hell, it's not even a speedbump for you; unknown psychopaths are threatening your daughter because of you."

"Our daughter," Nate reminded her.

"Yes, our daughter, and now all I hear is you moping about things you can't change—it's self-indulgent, Nate. What are you gonna do? You're gonna quit feeling sorry for yourself, sack up, and make fucking do."

Nate groaned. "So this is the tough love part of my day."

Kara rolled her eyes as she pulled her hair loose and scrubbed annoyed fingers through it. "If you want tough love, get some of your ties and the riding crop. This is called a reality check."

"It's important to consider what led us here," Nate protested. He wasn't being unreasonable. He wasn't. It was pretty much his job to protect Jackie, a job at which he was failing spectacularly.

"It's irrelevant. Can you change the past? No. You say your career puts her in danger, so what's your fix? Quit? You have the best armed security force in the history of history and the backing of the leader of the free world. Not happening. So what you're really doing right now is whining."

"What I'm doing right now is worrying."

"You have professionals who get paid to do that for you. And Brad. Everything you can do, everything you need to do, is being done. So just shut up and do your job."

***

Nate woke with a start, finding himself in a different bedroom entirely, all dark wood and navy sheets, no sunlight to be seen. He slumped into his pillow as he glanced to the other side of the bed—empty, smooth, unoccupied, as always—and then rolled onto his back. Even in his dreams, Kara delivered a dressing-down so accurate she put heat-seeking missiles to shame.

It just ached that she couldn't do it in the flesh anymore. That all he had left was a dream.

***

"The president and I would like you to support the complete withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan," Nate said to Senator McManus, straight-up.

"Now that'll depend on General Camden's certification of the final withdrawal plans, a report, which as you know, we have not received. Until we do, any such talk is...premature," McManus replied, swirling his nearly-empty glass.

Nate inclined his head, keeping his body language open and inclusive. "While the general's recommendations do hold weight, the president is the Commander in Chief. He issues orders to the military. If he wants the troops out, they're out. Your support is requested more as a matter of...solidarity."

"You don't wanna get eviscerated by the press and rightly so, but hear this: I won't fall on my sword for you or the president. I can already see the editorials—Sanford McManus: Soft on Terror."

Nate frowned and looked at the amber liquid in his glass, still as full as when the bartender handed it over. "I'd hoped we'd be on the same page when it came to this issue."

McManus remained unapologetic: "Get the good general to recommend your troop withdrawal and maybe we'll have something to talk about."

Nate swirled his glass, then pitched his voice into the thoughtful range. "There are several defense contracts that large regional contributors of yours are vying for. It's been brought to our attention that those contributors are due for more rigorous scrutiny that they have so far managed to sidestep. That's an oversight that won't continue under this president."

In his peripheral vision, McManus went still. "I wouldn't know a thing about that."

"Of course not. Because you're an honorable man and a dedicated public servant," Nate said lightly, looking up and meeting his gaze again. "As such you'd naturally support applying the most rigorous standards to defense contractors, purely as a security matter. No matter which companies were found wanting. Now, as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, it might appear as if some misconduct took place, but surely we could help explain such a...misunderstanding. "

McManus smiled thinly and set his empty glass down with a precise click. "I'll believe that when I hear it from Josh Lyman himself. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need another drink."

***

Lise answered on the first ring: "Hey, sexy, what are you wearing?"

"A scowl," Nate said, shortly, as Perry started the limo and followed their lead cars into the street, heading back to the White House. It was something he couldn't get used to, people clearing a path for him.

Lise tsked. "No fun."

"I'm sure your husband would disagree."

"Marcus would kill for a relief pitcher about now, but that's not why you called. I take it the McManus meeting did not go well."

"If I ever needed it impressed upon me that I'm the Constitutional redheaded stepchild..."

"I'd say more of a strawberry blond, really."

"I hate politics," Nate said, sighing into the phone as he watched Washington slide by out the window.

"You've picked the perfect career, then. McManus didn't go for the offer of cover?"

"He needs to hear it from Josh himself," Nate parroted earnestly.

Lise huffed at the absurdity of that. Then she paused. Nate could practically hear her working it through, like plays on a chessboard. "You know, most of these recalcitrant politicians will kowtow to General Camden's recommendation. They'll have to; he's running the war and he's too popular to cross. Maybe you should go back to the well."

"Camden doesn't want to be the guy who lost the war."

"No, Camden wants to be president, so he can't be the guy who lost the war. Just blame Bush; it's what all the cool kids are doing."

"I don't even know what that means."

"You'll figure it out."

***

Back in the White House, Nate decided to stop by the first lady's office in the East Wing so he could at least get something done today.

He paused for a moment at the raised voices of Sam and Ainsley, what sounded like another verbal pitched battle. It was like the campaign all over again.

Well, he hadn't gotten here by shying away from a fight.

"The government isn't a force for good; the government is simply force," Ainsley proclaimed, her voice echoing down the hall. "It alone has the power to require people to do something, or else. And how about this, Mr. I Don't Like Gun Owners: every tax hike, every emissions cap, every regulation is the equivalent of pointing a loaded gun at citizens. You're saying 'do this or I will take your money, your property, your freedom.' So you'll forgive my disbelief when people call the Republicans—those folks who want less regulation—the fascists."

Nate stepped into the doorway and jumped into the pause: "I hope I'm not interrupting."

"Thank you," Sam said passionately, taking off his glasses and rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Yes, evade the truth for another day," Ainsley shot at him.

Sam ignored her. "I stopped in to ask about lunch and Ainsley decided to give me her weekly speech on how Republicans really are the Force of Good in the world," he informed Nate, face earnest.

"How's the reception?" Nate asked her, mildly.

"Critical," Ainsley replied.

"Long-suffering," Sam corrected.

Nate held up his hands: no threat here. "That's above my pay grade."

Sam clapped his hands together. "Well, this has been fun, but I have to go work on things that actually, you know, matter." He turned to Nate. "You talked to McManus?"

"I had that pleasure," Nate said darkly.

"Ah. Bring it up at Senior Staff," he said, already walking out the door.

"Yes, sir, Mr. President."

"Can I help you with something, Nate?" Ainsley asked, instantly changing tacks to pure southern belle, all sweetness and light.

Nate nodded, noting how remarkably unperturbed she seemed, like she hadn't just been lecturing the President of the United States. Amazing how they could go from debate-mode to public-mode like the flick of a switch. Nate had seen it untold times on the campaign trail and still, it struck him. They thrived on the conflict.

"I hope so. Lise's doctor put her on bed rest, we still haven't hired a new deputy—my office is a shambles. I've got a staff who are working against me without even realizing it."

"That sounds like a very unfortunate situation."

"If you'd let me have Dale Cole back, it'd be far less unfortunate."

Ainsley tilted her head in surprise. She obviously hadn't expected that. "You want Dale Cole back?" she said like she was checking to make sure.

"Yes."

"You want Dale Cole back," she repeated, this time like she couldn't grasp it.

"No, I asked because I have nothing better to do."

"Why would I ever let you have Dale Cole back?" Ainsley asked, honestly curious.

"As a goodwill gesture. To gesture, you know, goodwill and remorse for stealing him from me in the first place."

"That would require feeling remorse."

Nate made an affronted noise. Ainsley smiled, apparently delighted by this reaction.

"I did you a favor, Nate."

"I'd like a favor now."

"Oh, believe me, this is a favor now. Didn't it strike you as odd that Dale Cole wanted to move from the Office of the Vice President to the Office of the First Lady?"

"Well, seeing as you are the very soul of goodwill—"

"Because in such a situation, I ask myself: why would you move as Chief of Staff from an elected official to an elected official's wife, whose position is ceremonial at best? And a Republican! Why, the only person who does that does so for some other purpose."

"That's cynical."

Ainsley smiled again. "You're a nice guy, Nate. It's one of your biggest faults."

"You say the sweetest things."

"Even if it's unconscious, some part of you thinks, 'gosh, I'm a nice guy, people with whom I've never dealt—members of my own party—they'd have no reason to undermine me.'"

"Seeing as we're not in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, I can assure you the word 'gosh' has never entered my thoughts."

"That was a good show. But back to my point: you're a nice guy and a terrible judge of character."

"Mrs. Seaborn—"

"Ainsley. Also 'terrible' is a bit of a loaded word, there. You have your strengths, of course: you recognize incompetence and you don't suffer yes-men, but at heart, you give people the benefit of the doubt. You see the good in them."

Nate spread his hands. "Really not seeing the downside here."

Ainsley smiled fondly and switched tracks. "You know that surprise you feel when someone does something oddly malicious, against their best interests?"

Nate granted her that, inclining his head.

"Yeah, I'm never surprised. Because I am not a nice guy, Nate."

"It helps that you're not a guy."

She continued without stopping, in that way she had: "I'm not a nice guy and I'm a very good judge of character. And Dale Cole's time in Washington is quickly coming to a close." She said it with such finality, such certainty—

"...You're playing a long-con on Dale Cole."

Ainsley pinned him with a look that could shatter glass. "I object to the lust for power."

"None of that in this town."

Within a blink she was back to prim and proper. "It soothes my mind to know we agree. Obviously you understand why I can't let you have Dale Cole back, but I'll see if I can't find someone for you. As a gesture of goodwill, of course."

Nate narrowed his eyes at her studiously casual tone. "No unmarried, attractive women under forty."

"Nathaniel, I am shocked at your discriminatory hiring practices. Why, denying young marriageable women the chance to learn from you."

"Forestalling the rumors, the innuendo, the lawsuits."

"And here I thought you Democrats were a freedom-loving people," she said mournfully.

***

Nate crossed paths with Josh in the hall on his way back to the West Wing. He reversed direction and fell into step beside him. "What do you think of Dale Cole?" Nate asked bluntly.

"What do I think of Dale Cole?" Josh thought barely a beat, then shrugged in dismissal. "He's a ladder-climber. Better suited to boardrooms than bureaucracy. Why?"

"You couldn't have mentioned this when I hired him?"

"I was busy. And...really didn't care." Josh stopped walking and turned to question him. "Sir, why are we talking about Dale Cole?"

"My life has gotten very strange," Nate said, shaking his head.

"But—"

"Don't worry about it," Nate said.

"Okay," Josh said with relief. Then he changed topics: "I heard your talk with McManus did not go well."

Nate smiled, briefly, so reminded of Lise when he did that. "It did not go well, no. Should you ever want to win anything, find a way to work the phrase 'soft on terror' into attack ads. 'Don't support the ban on salmon farming? Why, you're soft on terror!'"

"Yeah, but my side's usually the one being accused of that," Josh said dryly. "What you should do is float the spectre of defense contractor reviews. If there's one thing politicians care more about than their reputation, it's money."

"Tried that. McManus informed me that I'm no Josh Lyman and he'd have to hear it from the man himself."

Josh held up a hand and took a half-step forward. "See that's—It's not a reflection on you. You're just an unknown. These people know me, trust me. We've been in the trenches together, gotten battle-hardened and war-weary—"

Nate tried to suppress his smile, but not terribly hard.

"...which I recognize is an unfortunate metaphor when speaking to a retired Marine who spent two tours getting shot at in the Middle East," Josh continued, backtracking.

Nate shook his head. "It's fine. It's—let's just say the McManus talk went as well as expected and I'll be formulating a new line of attack."

"Keep fighting the good fight, sir," he said, raising a fist in some kind of solidarity as he peeled off toward his office and the Oval. He turned backwards, but kept on walking, people comically darting out of his path. Josh jerked his thumb toward his own chest. "The man himself will just be off bitchslapping the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee around the beltway."

***

Mark greeted Nate with an intent look when he arrived back at the office. "How was the meeting with McManus?" Right, he had to tell Mark things, too.

"I hate politics," Nate summed up.

"...okay?" Mark shifted, smile stiff and pulling the lines around his eyes tight.

"It could have gone better," Nate clarified. Had to keep things straightforward for Mark. "General Hutchings is coming into town, isn't he?"

Mark blinked and took a beat to catch up. "Yes, sir, testifying before Congress."

"I want to talk to him. Unofficially. Get a sense of where the head of the International Security Assistance Force's head's at."

"You think Camden's right hand will really tell you anything?"

"Given all the media reports, I'd be surprised if Camden didn't want us to know. Hell, Hutchings' people are probably waiting for your call."

***

Again Nate found himself looking out at the world as it passed him by, watching people live their lives while he sheltered behind tinted, armored windows. No sirens, no fanfare—the Service had been as good as its word in delivering him to Jackie's school via informal package. Nate appreciated the respite from the usual cacophony; he almost felt normal.

If 'normal' meant being chauffeured around by bodyguards toting automatic weapons.

At Sidwell Friends School, his detail linked up with Jackie's. Nate was content to wait in the car and out of sight. They'd timed it well—school was just letting out, a stream of kids pouring forth from the Manor House's white-columned entrance. They laughed, kicked the snow piled just outside, and yelled in childlike abandon. It might be difficult to find Jackie in such a boisterous throng, if not for the group of men accompanying her.

Brad wasn't exactly inconspicuous in a crowd of seven-year-olds. Not that Nate wanted him to be. The very sight made Nate smile; Brad, the picture of a perfect Secret Service agent, black sunglasses, mic in his ear, black suit as much a uniform as his cammies ever were. The incongruity of Mr. Penguin sticking out of Brad's jacket pocket only deepened that smile. It was such a poignantly Brad thing to do. Even as Nate smiled, something in him ached.

Nate watched them approach the car. Brad constantly surveyed their surroundings, a back-and-forth scan that would go unnoticed if you weren't looking for it. Ray, Walt, and the others were fanned out around him doing exactly the same. Jackie skipped happily beside Brad, for once actually wearing her gloves, her cheeks and the tip of her nose red from the cold.

Brad completed his circuit and looked at her, corners of his mouth turned down infinitesimally.

Jackie instantly scrambled to walk on Brad's other side, looking up at him for validation.

Brad's mouth smoothed out, approval radiating from him like an aura.

All without a word.

It should probably worry him, but well. Nate knew all about the power of Brad's favor.

Just before they reached the curb, Jackie slipped on the ice, arms flailing—

Without even looking, Brad instantly grabbed the back of her coat and set her on her feet, like nothing had happened.

The Iceman knew what you were gonna do before you did. Some things never changed.

Jackie found the whole thing hilarious, giggling in delight as Ray opened the car door for her. She climbed in, accompanied by a frigid gust of wind, smile beaming as she spotted him. "Daddy!" She launched herself into his arms, squeezing him tight.

Nate hugged her close. "I missed my favorite daughter, so I thought I'd drive with you."

"I'm your only daughter," she protested, pulling away, shoving her green gloves off and to the floor as she dug into her backpack.

"Then I guess it's a good thing you're my favorite. How was school?"

"Look at the sticker I got!" She showed him her math homework with a sparkly star sticker at the top. Nate cooed appropriately as Ray hopped in the front seat and Brad joined them in back. Two thumps on top of the SUV and then they were off.

***

"Did you like your first day with Special Agent Colbert?" Nate asked Jackie as they assembled their slightly sloppy peanut butter and banana sandwiches. The cooks would be beside themselves if he hadn't shooed them away.

"Brad!" Oh, they were on a first name basis, were they? "He's a secret agent and says I get to be one, too! But he won't let me ride on his shoulders, even though Mr. Penguin got to ride in his pocket. And he doesn't hold hands crossing the street," she said with the air of one appalled by such a terrible safety violation.

"Remember, we always do what the agents say. They're here to protect us."

"Did you always do what Brad said before?" Jackie asked, squishing her bread together hard enough that the peanut butter oozed out the sides. She sucked on that, rather than actually eating anything else, managing to get peanut butter all over her face and hands. Naturally.

Nate smiled at her antics and grabbed a napkin. "I wish I had."

***

A light knock sounded at the door of his study. Nate looked up to find Brad in the open door, loosened tie saying he was off duty and had stopped by to check in.

Nate smiled tightly in welcome and waved him in. "How was the first full day?"

"Textbook," Brad said, seeming unlikely to get any more descriptive than that. Nate would have to push, then.

"What's the sitrep with the detail?" Nate asked. "Is everyone situated?"

"I have everything well in hand." Brad's expression said that was as specific as he'd get, no matter how much Nate pressed. They'd both had the same anti-interrogation training; Nate wouldn't get anything from Brad that he didn't want to give.

Nate suppressed a frustrated sigh and instead opted for the direct route. "Are the letters really bad?"

Brad simply looked at him. "Is there any kind of threat to your daughter's life that you wouldn't consider bad?"

"Touché."

They were silent for a moment as Nate turned and peered into the darkness outside his window.

"I remember when Zoey Bartlet was kidnapped," he said aloud, before he considered whether he should actually say it. Then he stilled. He hadn't done that since...well, since Kara. Politics didn't exactly allow for thoughtless speech.

Reflected in the window, Brad shook his head, firm. "She was an adult and her agents were giving her a wide leash. Plus, her boyfriend drugged her and the abductors got lucky. That isn't going to happen this time."

Nate turned and stared hard at Brad. "Am I needlessly putting her at risk right now, with this job?"

"That's beside the point. It's done. The future is all that matters."

Nate shook his head as Kara's words echoed in his mind. He moved to his liquor cabinet, choosing the Talisker 25. "And yet I'm plagued by the question." He held up the bottle to Brad, asking with a look.

Brad looked regretful, but turned it down with a shake of his head. "Here's a better one: if you gave up your job, went to live in a cabin in Montana, would the threat stop?"

"Without knowing who's behind it, there's no way to answer that." Nate poured himself a double.

"True. Assume the worst-case scenario: it doesn't stop. So now you're in a cabin in Montana with limited Secret Service protection rather than in a secure military installation like the Naval Observatory or the White House. Is that the smart move?"

"I just don't even know anymore." The scotch burned on the way down. Fitting.

***

"I really fucked up," Nate said, curled around Kara, playing with the hem of her oversized sleep shirt as she read a policy brief.

She read on, snarking back automatically: "Yes, because it's all about you."

"I never should've accepted the VP slot. I put Jackie in danger."

Kara turned a page, seemingly engrossed in the data. "You put Jackie in much more danger every time you put her in a car."

Nate tugged on her shirt. "I'm serious."

"You think I'm not?" Kara asked, sharply looking over. "Why are we still having this conversation? I'm telling you to move forward. Brad's telling you to move forward. What's it going to take to convince you to move forward?"

"Catching the bad guys would help."

"Right, and until then the world should stop for your 'woe is me' routine? In case you forgot, there's still a job to do. You fight them until you can't. There's no wallowing."

Nate slumped back to the bed, feeling the truth of her words, wishing it could be that easy. "You were nice to me before we got married."

"No, I wasn't. You were just distracted by all the sex."

***

The alarm woke Nate with a start, the laugh still on his lips. His hand rose to the leather cord around his neck, automatically glancing to the other side of the bed. It remained as smooth and unused as he left it the night before, just as it had for the last five plus years. Because no matter how real Kara seemed in his dreams, she was gone. She'd never be there when he woke up.

That took care of any levity right quick.

***

"Good morning, sir," Celia greeted him, handing over a stack of files. "The Presidential Daily Briefing has been pushed to 9:40, which puts senior staff at 10:10. The National Economic Council meeting in the Oval is now at 2:10. The Secretaries of Defense and State are at 3:30 and yes, you really do have to go. And the first lady's waiting in your office."

That stopped Nate short. "I didn't know I had a meeting with the first lady today."

"You don't."

"That's the first thing you tell me," Nate said sternly, handing the files back and heading for his door. He hadn't done anything to piss her off, had he?

"Good morning, Mrs. Seaborn," Nate greeted genially as he crossed the threshold into his office.

She looked up from studying the picture of Kara and Jackie he kept on his desk. "Ainsley," she reminded him. Then she read his expression and smiled. "Worrying about what you did wrong?"

"Little bit."

"What'd you come up with?"

He grinned and held out his hands. "I am beyond reproach. What can I do for you this morning?"

"Can someone please get the door," she called to his outer office.

"Is that a good idea?"

Ainsley gave him an arch look. "I think I can manage to refrain from jumping you at your place of business. Your residence, though..." Celia obligingly shut the door, amusement radiating from her.

Nate sighed. "It's not funny."

"It is for everyone who's not you. But let's not get into this again." Thank God. "There's a bit of a thing."

"A thing? I'm really starting to hate that euphemism."

"But it's so versatile."

Nate sent her an unimpressed look. "So. Your thing?"

Ainsley sighed, leaning against his desk. Nate could see the annoyance underneath her casualness. "The press is rumbling about Sam's lack of military experience again."

It'd been a common criticism during the campaign, but it died down after they'd won a decisive victory. Nate couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at the timing.

"You think someone's trying to undermine the withdrawal?"

"I do. We'd like you to do some press—easy, friendly, just a reminder."

Nate smirked. "Using me for my military credentials again?"

Ainsley offered an innocent smile. "It's better than using you for your pretty face."

"Don't pretend it's not both," he shot back. "But of course. I'm happy to help."

Ainsley pushed herself to standing with an appreciative grin. "Great. We'll set it up." She turned to go, then stopped herself. "And Nate...thank you. You know we don't treat your service lightly."

Nate inclined his head. "And you know I'd never let you."

***

"Is it true you studied Walter Mondale in an effort to prepare for the vice presidency?"

"I was a Classics major at undergrad; I believe history can serve as a guide. Mondale approached the office with a thoughtfulness that ultimately revolutionized how vice presidents serve. He considered it his most important contribution."

"What did you take away from Mondale's experiences?"

"The vice president is the only other administration official that's not tied to an agency or department. We can give independent advice without trying to push an agenda, unconsciously or not. But to do that, the vice president has to have access to the same information as the president."

"Does President Seaborn give you that access?"

"He does. The president is very collaborative. We do all the intelligence briefings together, I have members of my staff on the National Security Council, the Domestic Policy Council, National Economic Council, and so on. He's basically put forth an open invitation to all of his political meetings. He understands the value of objective judgment and has placed his faith in my ability to advise as such."

"But even you wouldn't say that you're objective when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"It's true that doing combat tours in both countries has impacted my view of our modern wars, but I see that as being informed, more than anything else. I know what combat is like, directly, giving me far more insight than anyone espousing theory. To the president's credit, he listens to all voices, from those of military strategists to the experiences of a lowly captain just trying to do his part."

"You're a bit more than a lowly captain these days."

"Depends on who you ask. Ultimately, I try to be mindful of the boots on the ground perspective of any of our conflicts, present or future. We owe that much to the men and women we ask to fight."

***

"I think I'll attend Mass with Jackie this Sunday," Nate told Sam at their weekly breakfast.

"Oh, thank God." Sam thought a beat, then speared a piece of pineapple. "That was an unfortunate pun. But yes, you should absolutely go to Mass with Jackie. Our weightlifting schedule is far less important than your immortal soul."

"Why, Mr. President, are you implying that our lifting sessions are anything other than the highlight of your days?"

"Implying? Was I too subtle there? 'Cause I'm pretty sure the Geneva Conventions ban what you call weightlifting and I think you should go to Mass and atone for it."

"Or we could move our session to later in the day," Nate said idly.

Sam slumped. "The only reason I'm even entertaining the thought is that if I don't, you make me look bad. Plus, Ainsley compliments me and then I feel all manly."

"You'd think being President of the United States would take care of that."

"You would," he shot back, somewhat petulant.

***

Nate felt ungainly in Mass, unfamiliar with the new wording. He caught himself saying "And also with you," stumbled over "consubstantial with the Father," and couldn't figure out where "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" was going to come up.

It didn't.

Obviously he hadn't been to Mass in a while. A while lasting years. Many, many years.

Nate was self-aware enough to know what he was doing. The threats to Jackie had unmoored him, made him go looking for some kind of comfort. His dreams about Kara, going to Mass, on some level even the calm he felt in Brad's presence; Nate wanted something to make him feel better.

One thing he learned: he wouldn't find it in the Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The whole production left him feeling awkward and only cemented the dissatisfaction that religion held for him. Intellectually, he remembered thinking he had faith, but he couldn't feel it. Like a scent on the wind, it was something fleeting, a faded childhood memory.

It should probably make him feel guilty. It didn't.

Instead he watched Jackie next to him, dutifully responding—correctly—and giggling when Nate got it wrong. So it wasn't a total wash.

"Now I know what you must've felt like when they changed Mass from Latin to English," he murmured to his mother, seated on Jackie's other side.

The angel pin on her lapel glinted as she reached over and patted his hand. "It was inevitable that you'd become a dinosaur." She paused. "I didn't expect it so soon, though."

"Gee, thanks."

Needless to say, Nate chose not to receive the Eucharist.

***

Afterwards, when everyone milled around and talked—Nate's parents deep in discussion with the priest—Nate wandered off. Wandered to Brad, who had taken an overwatch position, Walt sticking close to Jackie's side.

Nate never could stay away when Brad was around.

Plus, Nate could feel his mocking. Brad remained perfectly impassive, but Nate could sense it simmering under the surface nonetheless. It'd be a shame to deny Brad an outlet. Or anything, really, but Nate was ignoring that.

"Go ahead. Heaven forfend I rob you of the opportunity for a one-liner," he offered, low.

Brad didn't even hesitate. "Thinking about entering the priesthood, sir? You've got the celibacy down."

Nate smiled despite himself, then shook his head. "It seems like faith is a bigger requirement than celibacy these days. And I certainly don't have that." It would make it so much easier if he did.

Brad's gaze was measuring, seeing all the things Nate would rather keep hidden. Thankfully, he didn't press, keeping it light. "So we shouldn't count on your continued presence at Mass?"

"The president won't be losing his spotter after all."

Brad hmmed, something dryly amused in it. "He'll be so relieved."

***

Lise called in the car after family brunch. Jackie was off playing with her cousins, so Nate shook his head and answered with, "I'm pretty sure taking it easy doesn't mean working on Sunday."

Lise launched right into it without even a greeting: "You're not having a crisis of faith, are you? I feel like I should be the first to know that. I have rights."

Nate frowned. "No, no crisis to speak of. Why?"

"'Vice President Goes to Mass, Refuses Communion,'" Lise said, obviously reading aloud. "Even got a picture of you leaving church."

"I didn't refuse, I elected not to—come on, seriously? That was two hours ago."

"Gotta love the blogosphere."

"No. I really don't. Who cares about this?"

"Your constituents, Christian fundamentalists, the pope, maybe. Wayward sheep returns to the warm embrace of the flock in the wake of personal tragedy; it's a good story."

"It's a clichéd story—and there is no personal tragedy," he said, indignant.

"All right, I'll take care of it. Now tell me how you're going to handle Hutchings."

***

They'd arranged a pull-aside after Hutchings' last testimony, an unofficial chat in Nate's ceremonial office in the Capitol. Hutchings bristled at Nate's questions, hostility pouring off him despite his impeccable manners, as if he were above it all, his rank some kind of shield.

Nate had never been impressed by a chest full of medals alone. Too bad no one clued in the good general.

"Understandably, Mr. Vice President, the general has some concerns about the effect of such a hasty withdrawal of troops."

"If General Camden feels that five years is a hasty withdrawal, I'd like to see what he considers slow," Nate said mildly.

"The Afghanis requested our continued presence, post-2014."

Nate smiled thinly. "I am familiar with the sequence of events."

"Then, Mr. Vice President, I'm sure you know that we've not yet made sufficient progress in stemming the tide of corruption. The general believes that our exit will leave a power vacuum into which unsavory elements will filter, reversing any and all progress made over the course of the war."

"Purely an altruistic concern, is it?"

"Yes, sir. And he feels strongly enough about it to have held tough against some less-than-productive suggestions he's gotten from policymakers. As of yet, he hasn't spoken out about his reservations, but between you and me, sir, that may not last."

"Really? I do believe all branches of the military have protocol when it comes to speaking to the media, so for General Camden to go outside the bounds of that protocol would be rather...extraordinary."

"Indeed. However, if he was a private citizen, he'd no longer be obliged to follow the military's protocol and could speak in good conscience to whoever he wished."

Nate favored Hutchings with a withering look. "And were he a private citizen, he'd also lose the protection of the uniform and the consideration it provides. Anyone would be free to look into or raise the spectre of unfortunate incidents. Boisterous drunkenness, extramarital dalliances with enlisted men's wives: all manner of past sins have a nasty habit of turning up when one enters the spotlight."

"Yes, sir, I'm aware that your Administration has a passing familiarity with indiscretions," he shot back.

"A passing familiarity with indiscretions? You're going there?"

"Everyone has a past, sir." Hutchings managed to make it dismissive without changing pitch or expression. Kind of impressive.

Not that Nate was going to let it pass.

"The difference is some people's pasts are old news and some are not. Actions have consequences. You'd do well to remember that. As would General Camden. Dismissed."

Hutchings' eye twitched, obviously appalled at being dismissed by someone who didn't have authority over him. Not that Nate cared, since it got him what he wanted: Hutchings about-facing and disappearing out the door.

Nate already had his phone out and to his ear. "Margaret, tell Josh we have a Camden problem."

***

"I'm not obligated to do what Camden wants. The man works for me," Sam declared, leaning against his desk, dismissive.

"Camden doesn't think you'll do what he wants. He wants to make you look bad so he can run against you in three years. It's a political bomb and he's tossing it at your head," Josh said, practically vibrating. "Either way he wins: you agree with his recommendation and he's the brilliant strategist, or you don't and you're the peacenik hippie who has no place running a war. Smart money has him resigning in protest. It'll be like 2015 all over again, arguing a war nobody wants to be in, but won't take the hit to get out of."

Sam looked over, tilting his head in question. "Nate?"

Nate shrugged. "Josh's analysis isn't wrong. You can't win. So change the rules."

"Which means what?"

"The doomsday scenario Josh just spun out depends on Camden issuing his final recommendation. Take that out of the equation." Nate looked him straight in the eye. "Relieve him of command."

Sam blinked at him. "Now, let's not get ahead of ourselves—"

Josh piped in, pretty much the only person who ever interrupted him. "No, sir, he's right. Camden's a holdover from the previous administration. He resigns in protest, it puts us on the defensive. Better to fire him first and attribute the lack of progress to his handling of the war."

Nate couldn't help the smile that flitted over his face. "Perhaps less cynically, it's an issue of civilian control of the military, on which the entire system is based. If he can't follow orders, he shouldn't be doing the job and there are scores of great generals past who have said as much and stronger. But, sir, you can't just threaten. You have to be willing to do it."

Sam frowned as he considered it. His eyes flicked to Josh. "Get Camden's ass on a plane. I want to talk to him first. He can defy me to my face."

***

Nate hadn't often thought of Brad, back before. Sure, there were some what-ifs when he was at Harvard, but then he'd met Kara and that had been that.

He hadn't thought of Brad often, but he had thought of him. Now with Brad here, in front of him, once again nominally under Nate's command—insofar as Brad had ever been, regardless of their ranks—Nate found himself wanting to bridge that distance. Wanting to learn, to understand, to know. To be one of the few who could claim as much.

He should respect the boundary, codified in the Secret Service's training as much as in the Corps': don't get too close. Closeness blurs judgment, undermines good order and discipline, and we all fall down.

He should. But dammit, he didn't want to. Nate wasn't bound by the Service's rules. He could open himself up to a deeper rapport with Brad without compromising anything.

Brad could damn well decide if he wanted to compromise himself, especially since Nate firmly believed that nothing ever could. And maybe part of Nate wanted to know if Brad even would.

So during another evening watching Brad play statue while he and Vicky played with the kids—or more accurately, while Jackie ignored him in favor of playing with her cousins and Vicky supervised—Nate decided to indulge his curiosity. He wandered over to Brad and propped himself against the wall, taking in his vantage point—Jackie, Maddy, and Ben making the world's most sprawling Lego fortress.

"The bridge needs another layer of fortification; it'll never withstand a frontal assault," Brad muttered.

The absurdity startled a laugh out of Nate. Since it seemed like Brad wasn't opposed to the company, Nate simply shook his head and watched Brad in profile. "I can't believe you EAS'd. You're the quintessential Marine."

Brad shrugged, looked at Nate briefly, then back to the room. "Things changed after OIF 1. Went back there and then to Afghanistan a few times. Had some fun pirate-hunting off Somalia. Actually got to go in the water for that one."

"And get to use your specialty? This is far too sensible. It must be stopped."

"Which they kept trying to do by promoting me," Brad said, sounding insulted.

"God forbid."

"Fuckin' thumbsuckers couldn't leave well enough alone," he murmured, low enough to stay just between them. Low enough to feel intimate. "It became a matter of training or babysitting officers and, no offense, sir, but I'd rather pull out my own eyelashes one by one. Mike has more patience for that epic game of grab-ass."

"Bullshit," Nate said gamely, voice equally low so the kids wouldn't overhear. "You've stayed motionless for days, weeks, observing a target."

A ghost of a smile passed over Brad's lips. "True enough. But training kids to do what I wanted to be doing felt like too much of a tease. And officers—" Brad made a dismissive noise. "It's all bureaucratic ass-licking and box-checking."

"So you come here. To the Secret Service, working for a federal agency, surely free of bureaucratic ass-licking and box-checking," Nate said dryly.

"I'd call myself a glutton for punishment, but that's being too kind."

"You've taken masochism to new heights, Brad. I'm impressed. But seeing as I get the benefit of your self-flagellation, I do appreciate it."

"I am here to serve you, sir, howsoever you desire."

Nate tsked. "Shouldn't write blank checks like that."

Brad seemed delighted by the prospect. He actually looked away from the windows—briefly: "I await the day you suggest something...untoward." His voice lowered on the last, sending Nate a look that was positively indecent.

So this would be the fun kind of torture.

Nate smirked, but didn't engage, like always. He let silence settle around them, so familiar, even after all these years. Eventually, though, he gave in to the curiosity, perverse as it was. "To get an assignment like this, you've had to be in the Service a while. I'm surprised I've never seen you on duty before."

"We're paid to be simultaneously imposing and invisible." It sounded like an official brush-off, which only made Nate more determined.

Brad really should know better.

"There were times I swore I saw you on the campaign trail, in the crowds. But then I'd blink and you were gone." Nate made sure his tone turned it into a question.

Brad's silence answered it.

Nate turned to him slowly. "You were on the campaign trail."

Brad, focused on the windows and not looking at Nate, smirked.

"You motherfucker. And you never once stopped by to say, 'hey, how's it going, good luck with that national election thing?'"

"I was undercover. It wouldn't really work if you were looking for me in every crowd."

Nate ignored the presumption of that. "No one sane puts you undercover."

"I'm at my best behind enemy lines." Brad sounded mildly offended.

"Where the goal is to fade to the background. In a crowd of your fellow Americans, how do you do anything but stand out?"

More silence. Yeah, that was probably a bit too honest.

Nate avoided Brad's searching look and shook his head. "I wish I'd known. I could've used someone I trusted as a sounding board," he murmured. Endless days, no sleep to be had, too many hands to shake, too many roles to play: be a warrior but don't be a jarhead, be brilliant but don't be the Ivy League elite, be presidential but don't be running for president. And all with no anchor to be found.

It was amazing he'd come through with his sanity intact. In retrospect, some politicians' bizarre behavior made a frightening amount of sense.

"I figured it was best not to distract you, to focus on keeping you safe," Brad said carefully, voice full of something—tentative, almost hesitant.

But that was ridiculous. Brad was neither. Clearly Nate was imagining things.

He certainly had experience with that.

***

After that, they fell into a rhythm. He woke up in the morning and Walt was there. He went with Jackie to drop her off at school and Brad scanned the throngs of kids while Jackie waved goodbye to Nate. He came home to find Jackie playing with Vicky and the kids as Ray offered vaguely dirty Twister tips.

It was all so...anticlimactic.

Then again, he'd gone to war; he should be familiar with this. It turned out that being threatened by psychopaths, like war, was mostly about hurry up and wait.

"Why is this so normal?" he asked Brad at one of their now-customary evening chats.

"Sir?"

"Having you here. My daughter's in danger and yet I worry less than before the threats started."

Brad considered. "The unknown threat is more daunting than the known one."

"You don't know what you don't know," Nate murmured.

"If you must paraphrase Rumsfeld," Brad said, like it was a great kindness for him to allow it.

"I disagree."

"You're right; his name should never be spoken."

"No, I don't think that's the reason."

Brad shook his head. "You started this line of questioning. All I can contribute is, it ain't 'cause you're getting some."

"Thank you, Brad, for keeping tabs on my sex life."

"All part of the service."

Nate forged on. "I think it's—I just think it's you. And the guys," he added hurriedly. "I have nothing but confidence in you keeping Jackie safe."

Brad lowered his eyes like he was pleased, but didn't want to show it.

"Right, what do you say to that?" Nate asked, half-mocking. He turned, but a flash of color caught him. "You've got a bit of—" Nate motioned to the violet handprint on the back of Brad's leg, half-embarrassed.

Brad looked down and inspected his suit, utterly unperturbed. "Painting costumes today. She has a nice grasp of color balance. You should be proud."

Nate laughed.

***

Nate laid his chin on Kara's stomach, saying glumly: "Brad carries Mr. Penguin in his pocket. I think Jackie likes Brad better than she likes me."

Kara carded her fingers through his hair. "You fail at raising our daughter."

"I've been saying!"

"To be fair, I don't think I would've done much better," Kara admitted.

"You called?" Brad said from the doorway.

Nate turned his cheek against Kara's stomach so he could watch Brad approach, smiling a little. "I was telling Kara how our daughter likes you better than me."

"Can't fault her taste," Brad said. He crawled onto the bed beside them, the light dipping in and out of the sharp definition of his stomach muscles. It was fucking unfair how arresting he was, clad in faded blue sleep pants and nothing else.

Kara reached for him and Brad settled on her other side, his fingers idly stroking along her hip, somehow suggestive for all that it was mostly innocent.

Nate splayed his hand across Brad's chest, completing the circuit. "No, I can't," he said, voice thick with sudden want. He tried swallowing past it, even as Brad shot him a knowing, heated look, but he couldn't, blood rushing in his ears, pounding through him like a wail—

***

Jackie's scream had him up and moving before he registered what was happening. Nate slammed out of his door to hear, "DADDY!" echoing down the hall, his body running toward it on instinct.

No one stood post outside Jackie's door.

Her door was open.

Nate rushed in to see Jackie sitting in bed, Mr. Penguin clutched to her, face scrunched and red from crying. Brad appeared from the bathroom. "All clear," he muttered into his radio.

Nate moved to the bed, gathering Jackie to him and rocking her slightly. "You're all right. Everything's fine." He could feel Brad's eyes on him until he closed the door behind himself, leaving Nate alone to console his sniffling child.

"I had a bad dream," she cried into his chest, hiccupping breaths making it tough to decipher.

"It was just a dream, sweetheart," Nate shushed, rocking her slightly, mind going to his own dream. Hardly a bad one, but it left his throat aching nonetheless. "Just a dream."

***

Nate had stayed with her until she fell asleep, but remained close, just in case. He only realized he'd drifted off when he woke with a start, briefing books spread around him on the loveseat and bedside table. His neck ached. Fuck. He was too old for this.

...he had an audience.

Nate looked up to find Ray and Walt watching him, apparently fascinated.

"Morning, sir," Walt said cheerfully.

"Is it? What time is it? Why are you watching me?" Fucking recon Marines and their stealth bullshit.

"Crackerjack came and got us."

"Traitor," Nate mumbled.

Jackie skipped in, still wearing her desert camo pajamas and holding Mr. Penguin by a threadbare flipper, her bad dream seemingly forgotten in the excitement of morning. "Daddy! Next time we have a slumber party can Brad come, too?"

If only.

Ray smirked like he knew just what Nate was thinking.

It would be very, very bad if Ray knew what Nate was thinking. Mostly for Nate. Ray was downright allergic to discretion.

"Maybe," Nate said neutrally.

"I want to wear my secret agent shirt." Jackie ran over to her closet...and then crawled inside, looking for it.

"Did you fall asleep, sir? Should we tell your acting chief of staff that you need some time?" Walt asked kindly. As if that was something he should ever have to do.

"No, I did the reading I needed to." Nate gestured at the briefing books. "Figured I might as well do it here."

"Sure looked like you were reading when we showed up," Ray cracked.

Nate smiled wryly as he rubbed at his eyes. "Know what VP stands for?"

"Victor Papa—it could be your porn name!" Ray said.

Nate looked meaningfully at where Jackie was buried in her closet. Ray flapped a hand, indicating the distance, like little girls couldn't hear what was going on ten feet away.

"VP?" Walt prompted.

"Very Protective. Or so I have been accused," Nate said ruefully.

Walt and Ray laughed.

***

There really was nothing quite like the President of the United States looking down on you in consternation.

In this case, literally.

"You do this to impugn my masculinity," Sam accused Nate as he finished his set on the weight bench.

Nate grunted out his last rep, then racked the bar, no help needed from his irked spotter. "It doesn't seem like impugning your masculinity would be a good career move."

"And yet, here we are."

Nate grinned and hopped up, gesturing to the bench. "Your turn."

Sam addressed one of the agents trying to seem out of the way in the president's small personal gym. "Sergio, get over here and shoot him."

Nate spared Sergio a glance. "I could take your protective detail. I wouldn't even need my protective detail as backup."

"And they say Marines are cocky," Sam said as he settled back on the weight bench and took hold of the bar.

"They're not wrong."

Sam snorted. "I met with Camden this morning," he said around his reps.

"Shall I start the search for a new head of the International Security Assistance Force?" Nate asked, dry.

Sam raised the bar with a grunt. "Oh, ye of little faith. I'll have you know he caved and agreed to certify the damn withdrawal plan."

Nate sucked in a sharp breath. "I'm surprised he went for it."

"I only had to threaten his job, future livelihood, and reputation."

"And all before breakfast. Well done, sir. You earned your paycheck today."

"Who's the man?" he asked with an impish smile. "Of course, now we have to physically get the troops out of Afghanistan."

"Logistics. We have people for that. And an approved plan, thanks to you."

Sam nodded, grin small but pleased. "And you. You okay to do some press on it?"

"Of course, sir, whatever you need. I'll even compliment Camden on his leadership and McManus on his vision."

Sam grunted as he finished his set, racked the bar, then sat up. "Lie your little heart out," he agreed. "You still planning to go to Afghanistan for the withdrawal ceremony?"

"With your permission, sir, yes. Unless you'd like to attend yourself."

Sam shook his head. "It's been your baby, Nate. If you want to go, you should go. I'll play my part from here, give the Secret Service some peace of mind."

Nate tipped his head in acknowledgment. "Thank you, sir. And thank you for making Camden see reason. Not a bad start to the day."

Sam lay back and took hold of the bar once more. "We'll take care of that right quick, I'm sure."

***

It was like whiplash, going from presidential weightlifting and literal war-gaming to the family party at the Naval Observatory.

But then, it felt his whole life was whiplash these days. Normality was but a fond memory.

"I can't believe this is only the second time I'm seeing her," Nate said as he cradled Chrystal against his shoulder, five months old and sitting up on her own, taking in the world, like a whole different person from the squalling newborn he'd briefly cooed at in between campaign events.

"Well, you were kinda holding a national campaign together on a wish and a prayer," Corinne said, far too generously. "And then running a country. I fear for the state of our union."

"As do I, really. But still, not an excuse not to get to know my niece," Nate said as Chrystal smiled and grabbed his fingers.

"There was no dearth of fawning. Mom and Dad made up for your absence. And hey, lighten up. Go easy on yourself for once. It's not like you have—" Corinne fumbled, realizing where the sentence was heading, "—anyone to make you." The silence after that edged toward awkward, as it always did whenever anyone broached the subject of Kara.

"But we were talking about your adorable daughter," Nate said, giving her the out.

Corinne flashed a smile at him. "She is pretty cute. It's all me."

Shouting and laughing interrupted them, Jackie and her cousins galloping through the house as Jackie called, "First one to Brad wins!" Vicky hurried after them, reminding: "Kids, no running in the house."

"It's fine. All the national treasures are safely tucked away," Nate said.

"Not helping, Nate," Vicky called back to him, stress audible in her voice.

"Odds on an epic Vicky meltdown before the day is through?" Corinne asked wryly.

"Your concern for our national treasures is noted and appreciated."

"You were the history major, not me."

"Classics. Classics major," Nate corrected. "It's different."

Corinne nodded in serious, mocking agreement, the afternoon sun striping her hair and making her seem even blonder than usual. "You realize your election to public office is inexplicable. Your advisers hid your inner dork well."

"The president's got me beat there."

"That you can even say stuff like that is so freakin' weird."

"Tell me about it."

The baby squirmed in his arms, chubby fists waving happily, seemingly content to be held and swayed back and forth as she watched all the movement.

A sense memory hit him then, so strong it could've been yesterday that he held Jackie like this, all curious eyes and carefree smiles. Back before.

Nate's heart pounded oddly and he blinked his suddenly-filmy eyes, placing himself firmly back here, at this family party. From over by the cake table, his mom watched him with the baby; he could see the consideration there, knew just what she was thinking. She'd said it often enough.

Nate clenched his jaw and turned back to Corinne.

"You're looking awfully comfortable with her," Corinne said lightly, smiling at the picture they made.

"I have a daughter, three nieces, a nephew, and probably more to come if your husband has anything to say about it. I've held a couple kids in my time." Hopefully that would put an end to the subject.

"You're good with them. Shame you couldn't have more." The implied you still could was loud and clear.

Or not.

"Not you, too," Nate muttered.

Corinne held up her hands. "Do what you want. It's just—"

Nate raised an eyebrow at her. She'd started this.

"Sometimes you get this look and we can all see how much you want."

"Best-laid plans," Nate murmured, only slightly bitter. "Kara's mom had trouble getting pregnant. It was the reason she didn't have any siblings. Before we got married Kara worried about it. Wanted to get tested. I finally snapped at her that I wasn't marrying her uterus, wasn't gonna return her to the store like a broken toy. She never let me live that one down," he mused, smiling wistfully, even now.

"Nor should she," Corinne said, both amusement and reproach in her tone.

Nate focused on her point: "Did we want more kids? Sure. We'd been talking about another and I was angling for a third, but all that died with her. Kara wasn't a baby factory. She wasn't someone you can just replace. She was...extraordinary. So all you accomplish when you people keep bringing up kids and dating and mother figures is to remind me what I lost. What I can never—" Nate cut himself off. Better that than have his voice completely betray him.

When he glanced up, Corinne looked stricken, hand held against her ribcage "Nate, I didn't—that's the last thing I mean. We all loved Kara, too. I'm not trying to foist a new model on you." Corinne gripped his arm, like she was trying to ground him. "We just want to see you happy."

"I'm happy enough," he said roughly, tingeing his voice with an apology.

Her hold loosened. "Some of us don't think you should have to use qualifiers," she said softly. "And jeez, I'm the one who had a baby; aren't I supposed to be the emotional wreck?"

Nate smiled weakly.

Chrystal squirmed against his shoulder and lifted her arms out, reaching for something. Nate looked over, unsurprised to see that Brad had appeared behind him. Nate shook his head, "My daughter, my niece. Good thing I don't have a dog. It'd probably desert me for you, too."

Brad's eyes tracked from Nate to the baby to Corinne before zeroing in on Nate, little crinkles of concern at the corners. But his voice was steady and dry as ever: "It's tough being loved."

***

"Eliot is working on the Afghanistan speech, right?" Nate asked into the phone, looking out at the lights of the base, glass of Glenfiddich 30 in hand.

"Has been for a few weeks," Lise reassured him. "Camden just agreed to the plan this morning, sir, we've got some time." From someone else that might've seemed annoyed, but Lise's voice held nothing but fondness.

Still. "The speech needs to be right," Nate said.

"You'll have plenty of input into the words that will come out of your mouth. And now I really must go pee."

Nate snorted. "Yeah, yeah, go attend to your bodily functions."

"Get some rest, Nate. Take the win." With that she clicked off the line. Nate hung up his phone more slowly.

"I hear congratulations are in order, sir," Brad said from his study door.

Nate smiled into his drink. The party was long over; he could indulge. "And yet you don't offer them." His smile turned rueful. "You're much too smart for that."

"Am I?"

"You know as well as I do that it's all bullshit anyway. Sure, we're taking the last 50,000 troops out, but the US will have troops in Afghanistan for the rest of our lifetimes. Probably longer. The strategic partnership agreement ensures it. No, demands it." Nate shook his head. "What a fucking farce."

Brad's silence was careful, too much so for him.

"What?" Nate asked eventually.

"Is everything—" he hesitated; Brad was never hesitant. "—all right, sir?"

Nate turned away from the window and looked at Brad, finding something concerned in his eyes. He sighed. "Yes. I'm sorry, that was—yes, everything's fine. Such as it can be, bouncing back and forth between impotence and futility as I do. I've just been thinking a lot about Kara lately." Nate's hand went to his chest, touching the leather cord on which their wedding bands hung, hidden under his sweater. Brad's eyes tracked the movement, but he didn't say anything.

"How is it that you show up whenever my life is about to fall apart?" Nate mused, dropping his hand.

"Sir?"

"Iraq, after Kara died, now...you've got remarkably good timing."

"I hardly think this situation compares with the death of your ideals and your wife."

Nate smiled tightly. "Yes, of course, you're right. You're always right, huh, Brad?"

The silence settled around them. Brad remained still, not engaging, and Nate felt the gnawing desperation in his chest recede, just a little. Just enough.

When he finally looked at Brad, the lift of his lip changed the tone entirely.

"You know, sir, they have pills for impotence these days," he said slyly, like he couldn't help himself.

Against his will, Nate huffed out a laugh. "Thanks for the advice."

As Brad smirked and quickly took his leave, Nate realized: he felt lighter. The realities of the situation hadn't changed, and Nate would play his part, but his desire to revel in the world's failings had gone.

Huh.

***

"You have a thing for blonds," Kara informed him in that tone of hers, the one amused at his expense.

"A blonde, certainly. Though I'm doubtful if the blond is natural, so it's better that I really go for the person and not the hair color," Nate shot back.

"A lie wrapped in an insult. Such a good politician."

"That'll be the day." He watched her for a moment; the light filtered in from the widows and swept over her, hitting her so perfectly she glowed. She looked so soft here, in their bed, when he knew she was anything but. "I miss you," he said suddenly, just realizing it himself.

Kara looked at him like he'd lost the plot. "I'm right here."

"I don't want to be a good politician."

Kara actually rolled her eyes at that. "You want to be good at anything you do, Nate. Now, no more spreading your venal lies; put that mouth to better use."

"You do realize it's disturbing when you quote Evan Wright in bed, right?" he asked, slipping down between her legs.

"Then you should be just fine, since I do believe I was quoting Brad."

***

Nate angled himself forward as they'd taught him in media training, trying to look attentive as the reporter recited facts that everyone should already know.

But Nate couldn't presume that everyone remained current on a tiny thing like the war they were fighting...so he played patient and engaged and smiled for the fucking cameras like a good little boy.

"General Camden, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, has issued his recommendation for the final withdrawal from Afghanistan. The president formally approved the plan and it now moves to the implementation stage. How do you feel, being the one to spearhead the withdrawal of troops from a country you invaded?"

"I cry bitter tears of woe," Nate parried. "The fact is, Katee, we're not here to talk about my feelings. It needs to be done, so I'm getting it done."

***

Walking out of the news studio and ducking into the limo, Nate got a text from Lise:

Need a tissue to dry those tears?

"I get nothing but respect," Nate muttered, clicking his phone off and slipping it into his pocket as he settled back into his seat.

"Sorry, sir?" Special Agent Donaldson asked as he climbed in after him.

"Just the women in my life. Never mind." He shook his head and smiled. "But that reminds me, I do want to attend Jackie's school play this week." She'd been talking of nothing else, though it sounded more like some sort of interpretive dance piece than an actual production with a storyline and point.

"Yes, sir."

That was too easy. "I do not want it to be an audience of one," he clarified.

Donaldson huffed out a laugh as the limo took off. "Yes, sir. We've worked it out with the school. Special Agent Colbert gave us a heads up about the upcoming play."

Of course he did.

"Oh. Well...good. Thank you."

***

Nate sat in the crowd, conscious of everyone else being conscious of him. He kept reminding himself that his presence was a good thing. At the very least he got to be here for Jackie's play, which was a victory when the Secret Service's procedures were involved. They had him sitting in front and to the side—to make for an easier exit, he knew—only somewhat noticeable. The guys in suits watching the crowd instead of the performance were more of a clue.

Nate ignored the looks and less-than-discreet murmurs, instead focusing on why they were all here: the adorable, if bizarrely costumed, children on stage. His seat gave him a better view of Jackie than he might've gotten otherwise, surely Brad's doing. He'd have to thank him.

Brad was nowhere to be seen, of course. Likely backstage, making everyone nervous with his tension. Couldn't be easy with the cacophony of restless children and harried adults.

He grinned as Jackie came out again, still in costume as a purple tulip, waving in the breeze. Or so he assumed since the plot, such as it was, gave Waiting for Godot a run for its money in the pretentious incomprehensibility department.

Jackie executed the turn she'd practiced and practiced, beaming at her accomplishment in a very unthespian-like way—

Jarring ringing sounded loud through the room, breaking into the music and causing a sudden confused collision onstage. It was the fire alarm, Nate realized, adrenaline kicking his senses into high gear. His focus narrowed in on Donaldson as he took the four steps needed to reach Nate and things started happening very quickly.

Nate was 'helped' to his feet by Donaldson and several other members of his detail. One pushed his head down as he was hustled out the side exit, the murmur of the crowd getting louder behind him as other parents reacted.

They made a series of quick, maze-like turns—left, straight, left again, around a curve—and then through an emergency exit into the frigid night air. Agents surrounded him, half a dozen now, some gripping his arms, practically carrying him along despite his lack of resistance. Three more steps—covered by more agents outside the limo—and he was shoved inside, Donaldson following, door shut with terrible finality. Two bangs on the ceiling and the limo peeled out, the sirens of their police escort loud in Nate's ears.

His exit had taken maybe fifteen seconds.

"Choirboy is secure," Donaldson said into his radio, gaze focused outside the limo.

"Where's Jackie?" Nate asked roughly. "What the fuck happened back there?"

"Colbert's got her, sir," Donaldson said crisply, clearly having trouble untangling the multitude of reports in his earpiece.

Didn't that just suck for him.

"Has anyone considered that there are only a limited number of routes back to the Observatory from the school?"

That certainly got Donaldson's full attention. "You...think the fire alarm was a tactic to get you in transit at a specific time?"

"Or Jackie. So I'm asking if anyone else has considered that possibility."

Donaldson opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Clearly, someone had his attention on comms.

"Copy that," he murmured. "And yes, someone has considered that possibility, which is why we're taking you to a secondary location. Jackie's en route right now."

Something in Nate settled at that. And since Donaldson clearly hadn't considered his possibility, Nate had a pretty good idea who was on top of the situation.

That settled him the rest of the way, body slumping back in his seat. "Do we know what happened?" he asked quietly.

"Electrical short. Set off the fire alarm. Ancient sprinklers went off just after we left. Drenched everybody."

"You're sure it was an accident?"

"Guys on site say yes. Civilians overloading their grid, all for legit purposes. Our presence was just a fluke."

Well, thank fuck for that.

***

Given that it was an accident, the Service decided to forego the alternate location and instead just took Nate home. Out of an abundance of caution, Brad had his guys take a roundabout route and since he'd already been slightly behind Nate, it meant Nate had nothing to do but pace in his study and worry until they arrived.

Noise from the hall made Nate turn and step toward the door. Brad appeared on the threshold, Jackie in his arms. She still wore her violet tulip costume and they both looked a little damp. Some of Jackie's face paint had rubbed off on Brad's suit coat. Her petals flopped pathetically with every step Brad took inside the room.

Jackie couldn't have looked happier: "Daddy, Brad gave me a piggyback ride!" she crowed, victorious.

Nate only realized he'd moved when he got to them, reaching out and crushing Jackie in a hug. Since she still clung to Brad, he got pulled in, too, a solid block of coiled tension under the hand Nate landed on his back.

"You okay?" Nate asked Jackie, low, putting a smile in his voice. Now that she was here and perfectly safe, Nate was trying to shove all the worry and paranoia and tension back into a box, didn't want to scare her himself.

"Did you see? The sprinklers came on! Everybody got wet!" she said gleefully, like it was summertime and Nate had turned the hose on his unwitting sisters, much to the delight of his nieces and nephew.

"I heard that. Did someone think it was bath-time?"

"No!" Jackie giggled and tipped over to fall into Nate's arms. "Hunter started crying," she continued into his shoulder. "But not me. I didn't cry!"

Brad tensed further, if possible, and shifted uncomfortably. Nate took the rest of Jackie's weight from him, but caught his hand around the back of Brad's neck, getting his attention.

Brad blinked at him, startled. Nate put his thanks into a look.

Something flickered in Brad's gaze and he tipped his head, fractionally. Message received, Nate released him, turning in a wide arc just to make Jackie squeal. "Is this how Brad carried you?"

"No!"

Her laughter echoed throughout the house.

***

"Has Eliot actually read this speech?" Nate asked Celia, who'd slipped into his office, nearly silent. "I know he wrote it, but has he read it? Because I don't think he has."

"I couldn't say, sir."

"Put some time on the books to go over it. And—I'm sorry, you came in here for something and I interrupted you," Nate recalled, sending her an apologetic look.

"The Secretary of the Navy is here," she said lowly, uncertain.

"Did I—"

Celia shook her head.

Nate raised an eyebrow, but nodded. "It's fine." Celia slipped back out and Nate heard the low murmur of voices.

Secretary Simon entered a moment later, dressed in a suit, just so, even at 9pm. On a Friday.

"Mr. Vice President, thank you for seeing me," he greeted, taking Nate's hand.

"Ken. Jesus, take a load off; you look like you're gearing up for battle."

Ken huffed a laugh and shook his head. "Some days it feels that way. I do apologize for the late hour. I was in the building on other matters and figured I'd drop on by."

"You just happened to be in the White House?" Nate said dryly.

To his credit, Ken didn't even blink. "Yes, sir."

Nate smiled, then gestured to his couch. "Please. What can I do for you?"

They both sat, but Ken might as well have been standing at attention for all he relaxed. "If I recall correctly, you served under Craig Schwetje back in the day."

Nate tensed slightly, but made sure to keep his voice light: "You recall correctly."

"Given that, you might find some selection board considerations interesting."

Nate quickly did the math in his head. Craig had been a colonel for a while now.

...Fuck. He needed a drink.

"Would I?" Nate asked mildly.

Ken sent Nate a rueful look. "I figured I oughta drop by and mention it, given your time in the Corps. As I'm sure you're aware, title 10 allows selection boards to consider any credible information of an adverse nature about officers they're considering. I also have latitude in furnishing them with information I deem...relevant. Before doing so, of course, the officer candidate would be allowed to comment on any such information."

Nate nodded. "As is only fair."

"Well, now that it's on your radar, I won't take up any more of your time. But I'm always available to you if you have thoughts."

Nate stood with him. "I appreciate that, Ken. It's good to see you."

"You have yourself a good evening, sir."

They shook hands, then Ken let himself out. Nate considered his door for a beat before poking his head out into the outer office. "Celia, can you find time for me to go see Lise tomorrow without offending too many world leaders?"

"Turkey, Bahrain, or Canada?"

"Oh, offend Canada, definitely. And tell everybody to go home, Mark included."

Celia nodded and picked up the phone.

Nate went back into his office, snagging the bottle of Brora 30 and a tumbler from his sideboard and setting them neatly on his desk. The amber liquid caught the light as he poured himself a healthy measure, other hand scrolling through his phone contacts.

It was late enough in California that he should be able to talk.

"Good evening, Mr. Vice President," Mike drawled when he picked up the line.

"Master Gunnery Sergeant," Nate replied, grinning at Mike's voice. Mike always did have that effect.

"To what do I owe this distinct honor?" Mike asked, all formal Texas twang.

"Eh, fuck you, old man."

Mike laughed and even from three thousand miles away, it sounded exactly as he remembered.

It'd been too long.

"How're the wife and kids?" Nate asked, relaxing back into his remarkably comfortable chair.

"Good. Chris joined JROTC. Navy," he added, horror audible in his voice.

Nate made a sympathetic noise. "Could be worse. He could've joined Air Force."

"Don't even joke about that. It's bad enough with him speaking acronym-ese just to taunt his little brother. But you didn't call me just to hear about my three little terrors."

"Now that's no way to speak of your wife."

Mike snorted. "Sad, but true: Audrey's the only well-behaved one of the lot and she's eleven. Now stop trying to distract me, Nate. What's up?"

"I need your expert advice."

"'Course you do," Mike drawled, pleased as a pig in shit.

"I just had a nice little chat with the SecNav."

"You sayin' shit like that, I don't even know who you are anymore."

"Just wait; it gets better. Our esteemed Company Commander who so bravely led us on our merry invasion?" Mike snorted, derisive, but Nate pressed on: "Turns out he's been an O-6 for almost four years now."

Mike silently considered it for a beat. "Fuckin' hell. General Encino Man. 'Cause the inmates runnin' the asylum always ends well."

"He hasn't made general yet," Nate reminded him.

"Which the Secretary of the Navy seeks you out to mention? Christ, this is why I didn't become an officer."

"And here I thought it was because the idea of BritLit made you hide under the bed."

"Don't be getting uppity, Mr. I Failed O-Chem. You ain't special."

"I shout it from the rooftops and still no one listens."

"Yeah, you're a tragic fuckin' figure, what with your meteoric, unimpeded rise and all. But listen—I'm hardly unbiased over here. We're talking about the only officer who's ever tried to torpedo my career."

"Mike, you're a just and reasonable man. What can I say? They don't keep many of those in stock around here."

"Now that I believe." He paused, his silence turning thoughtful. "Hell, you saw what he did during the war. And after we were done," he added, which really was the salient point. Craig was bad enough in combat, but his vindictiveness afterwards was problematic.

"I know. I agree with you, but it wouldn't be the first time a Marine redeemed himself."

"Certainly true for others, but Encino Man's still playin' the same game. A good game, too. For himself, at least."

"Yeah, that's what I—" Loud banging and a cacophony of voices bled through the line, Cathy and the kids arriving home, no doubt.

"Hey! Keep it down. I'm talkin' to the Vice President of the United States over here!"

Nate laughed. "I'm so glad I can provide you with self-important one-liners."

"Is that Uncle Nate? Hi, Uncle Nate!" Danny shouted from far away.

"Can I talk to him?" Chris asked, somewhat closer.

"Is your homework done?"

"Dad!" Chris protested.

"My homework's done!" Danny said.

"Shut up. He doesn't wanna talk to you," Chris said.

"Well, your girlfriend doesn't wanna talk to you!" Danny shot back.

"And just what girlfriend is that?" Cathy asked dryly behind them.

"She's not my—" The arguing faded as Mike walked into another room.

Mike chuckled. "I'd apologize, but it's your own damn fault. Mentioning you gets them all riled up. You have no idea the ruckus Chris raised at the thought he wouldn't get to vote for his uncle Nate."

"Blame Cathy."

"Tried that. And tried telling him that I ain't voting for you, so we'd just cancel each other out. He didn't much appreciate that argument. But hell, he'll be old enough for the next one."

"Lying to your children, Mike. I'm shocked." Nate wasn't ready to touch that last thought, not wanting to go there yet, when he hadn't worked it out in his own head. Even if it was Mike.

"The day I vote for a cocky motherfucker like you—"

"Was November 8th, 2016," Nate put in. "I'm sure you need help remembering, seeing how you're getting on in years."

"Did they get a wet nurse for baby-faced Ivy Leaguers like you?"

"I'm telling Brad you called him that."

Mike chuckled appreciatively, then turned serious again. "So what are you gonna do about Encino Man?"

"I'll let you know when I figure it out."

***

It was only on his way back to the Observatory that he got Vicky's text, saying the kids were sick and she had to run home.

Brad had kindly agreed to watch Jackie until Nate returned.

Fuck.

***

Nate found Brad sprawled on a couch, watching the muted TV, Jackie curled up by his side. She wore her pajamas and had Brad's pants in a death-grip. Brad's jacket hung on the back of a chair, his tie on top of it, and he had his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, top couple buttons undone. He was all long-limbed and sprawled out, relaxed. Unbidden, Nate pictured himself climbing into Brad's lap, nuzzling the hollow of his throat, basking in the warmth that must radiate from his still-golden skin.

Nate...needed to stop looking at that bit of exposed skin.

"Hey," he said quietly.

Brad tipped his head back and looked up at him, welcome in his eyes. "Evening, sir."

"You didn't need to stay. Vicky shouldn't have asked."

Brad shrugged. "Shit happens. I don't mind." He looked down at Jackie. "She's a good kid. Stubborn as all hell. Terrible at following orders, though. Would not go to bed without seeing her dad."

Nate smiled and stepped in. He carefully gathered Jackie to him, waking her. "No, I want Daddy," she whined, still half-asleep.

"I'm here, sweetie. Time for good girls to be in bed."

She relaxed in his arms and let him pick her up. "We didn't read the crayon book," she protested muzzily into his shoulder.

"We can read it tomorrow night," he soothed. His eyes returned to Brad, watching all this with a soft look bleeding through. So easy to read, even now. So far from the Iceman they called him.

Brad caught him looking and cleared his face. "I should—"

"Stay."

Brad stilled, something startled slipping across his face before he controlled it. "I don't copy."

"What time do you have to be here in the morning?" Nate asked softly, rocking Jackie a little.

"Briefing at oh-seven-hundred."

"And it's eleven now. You should stay. Dunno if you've noticed, but I've got a couple extra rooms. Crash here; it's the least I can do for my sister's imposition."

Brad's expression seemed at war with itself...but only for a moment. Then it cleared.

***

Nate braced himself against the headboard, bent in half, legs spread wide as Brad smoothly fucked into him over and over and over. Brad held himself so close, looking Nate in the eyes as he found his prostate every damn time, like he knew every secret to Nate's body and had mastered it ages ago.

One hand cupped the back of Nate's head, gentle. He dipped in to lick at Nate's mouth every other breath, making Nate draw forward to follow, to get more. Because it was never enough.

Nate couldn't—he couldn't—"I'm gonna—" he gasped.

"Come for me, Nate. I'll be right behind. Would follow you anywhere," Brad breathed against his mouth, a terrible ferocity in his eyes.

Nate's entire body tensed and shook—

***

Nate woke on a choking gasp, hands fumbling beneath the covers and into his boxers, stroking himself once, twice, thrice—

He shook as the orgasm burned through him, teeth anchored in the pillow so no one would hear. Coming was like an exorcism. If only the want could be purged so easily.

After, he was a gasping, sticky mess. And pathetic. Here he was, coming from a dream like a fucking teenager. How the mighty had fallen. Nate pulled his hand out and winced. He was going to have to wash his boxers in the sink.

Like a fucking teenager. Jesus.

***

Jackie was nowhere to be found. Nate felt his stomach roll, though he told himself he was being overbearing again. They were in a secure military installation and everything was fine.

But he'd heard her turn on his TV while he was showering, her morning cartoon ritual that he really needed to break, and now she was gone and the TV was still on.

And the door to Nate's suite was open.

Nate turned off the TV in time to hear a door down the hall open and Jackie's excited voice call out, "Brad!"

Shit. He shouldn't have mentioned Brad was next door.

Nate grabbed last night's shirt and hurried out, trying to button it and not trip any panic buttons along the way. He paused at the door to Brad's room, but kept on going despite the intrusion. Jackie had blazed the trail; he was just here to remedy any damage.

Fucking Christ.

Nate kind of skidded to a stop, as much as one could on a rug. Jackie stood just inside Brad's open bathroom door, talking talking talking, as Brad watched her, nodding intently.

Clad in boxer briefs. Black ones.

Of course he was still cut like a fucking Greek god.

Nate's hands flexed on his shirt buttons, his mind instantly returning to last night's dream, superimposing it over this reality. He wanted to lick Brad's hipbone. He wanted to shove him onto the bed and spread him out. He wanted.

"Jackie," he scolded.

Jackie looked back at him, oblivious and excited and bouncy. "Daddy, Brad slept over! Can he have breakfast with us?" Big green eyes blinked up at Nate, so Nate looked to Brad, who lifted his eyes. Where had he been—

"I think that's up to Brad, sweetheart. And Jackie, remember what I said about knocking on doors?" he said as he finished buttoning his shirt, resolutely ignoring the realization of just where Brad had been looking.

"I knocked, but no one answered."

Nate half-laughed; it was like a farce. "So you wait until they do."

"But the Cookie Monster was on," Jackie said plaintively, like this completely justified any and all trespassing.

Brad's grin was a sight to see.

***

"Up for a jog?" Nate asked a once-again-clothed Brad. Thank God for go bags and recon-style preparedness.

"A 'jog,' sir?" Brad asked, placid. "Will there be polo shirts and country clubs and good ol' boys as far as the eye can see?"

"Because it's just not exercise unless a hundred-pound pack is involved," Nate mused.

Brad's eyes twinkled.

What followed was apparently the most strenuous, grueling run in the history of Nate's detail. These men ran alongside moving vehicles without missing a beat. They had to ask Nate and Brad to slow down.

Twice.

Brad was pleased as fucking pie, even as sweat dripped down his neck and his shirt clung to him like it didn't want to let go.

It...wasn't a bad look for him.

"I see civilian life hasn't made you completely soft," Brad said, offering his appraisal of Nate's performance.

"Now, now, Brad. You'll make me blush."

"Like that's hard to do." Brad glanced back at Nate's flagging detail, a couple guys still visibly huffing and puffing. "What do you think of Donaldson?" he asked.

Nate shrugged. "He's competent." Then he rounded on Brad, suspicious. "Why are you asking about the head of my detail?"

"Just curious," Brad said in that way that meant he was plotting the overthrow of small nation-states.

"Brad," Nate warned, not entirely sure what he was warning against.

"Sir?"

"Be good."

His grin was shiny and bright. "Always."

***

Nate walked into Lise's bedroom, raising an eyebrow at the policy briefs littering the space. Lise looked up from the one she was buried in and smiled, conspiratorial. "You know my favorite thing about you being vice president?"

"The commitment to a work-life balance?"

"You can never sneak up on me anymore. Even with your ninja ways, I get a Secret Service-provided heads up whenever you wander by."

"The Service really cramps my style," he agreed.

"Sir, you'd have to have a style for them to cramp," she said, light, hand unconsciously rubbing over her swollen belly. Nate met tired brown eyes and moved closer.

"Now you sound like the first lady," he groused.

"Trying to set you up again?"

"That would imply she ever stops."

"You poor, attractive, successful, wealthy leader of men. How do you stand it?"

"See, all I heard there was you calling me hot."

"An opinion shared by many." Lise grabbed her nearby tablet and turned it so Nate could see the picture.

The picture of him and Brad on their morning run, Brad looking criminally tan, all lean muscles and sticking shirt.

Nate made an incensed noise. "That was this morning. How—"

"Free press, baby. You may have heard. And Saturday's a slow news day, so they are free to breathlessly fawn over your tight little ass. And—hello, soldier. Who's the hottie with you? I'll take some of that," she said, manipulating the tablet so it blew up Brad's picture.

"Marine," Nate said by rote, somewhat distracted by the image himself. Brad looked focused and determined, like he had a plan for this run and nothing would stop him from executing it.

It probably said something about Nate that he found that unbearably hot.

"Knew I should've hung around more when you were in your camo phase," Lise said regretfully.

Nate shook it off. "That's what you get for choosing Harvard over Dartmouth. And you're supposed to be resting, not lusting over Secret Service agents."

"Is there any reason I can't do both?"

"I did actually come here for a reason."

"Please, tell. I'm going stir-crazy with all the resting. And lusting."

Nate briefly filled her in on the brewing shitstorm that was Craig being promoted to general. As she thought it over, he headed to look sightlessly out the window. Even though his gut warred with logic, he knew what he had to do. Lise was simply a way to test it politically.

"I've never crossed the line," he mused. "I've toed the line, even moved the line, but I've never knowingly, deliberately crossed it," he said, thinking of Brad, thinking of lines he'd like to cross.

"That's an admirable thing, Nate."

"Is it? Or is it cowardice?"

"You do know this is a political trap," she finally offered.

"Fomented by our own Secretary of the Navy?"

"Or whoever floated the idea to him."

"Does cynicism like this take practice?"

"Long experience," she said, something sobering and weary in her voice. Not for the first time, Nate hated the idea of ever becoming that jaded.

He moved back to the chair beside the bed and squeezed her arm supportively. "Seeing as you're always right, you're probably right, but—"

"Look, I get it—I read the books and I'm sure what was left out was even worse. You don't like the thought of your old captain being one of only sixty."

"I was assured that only the best of the best made it to general. I was assured of this." Hell, at OCS they laughed if you even wanted to be a grunt, much less make it to general. The odds were...ridiculous, really.

"Lied to by your government—alert the news media."

Nate nodded, conceding the point. "But even as this kills a little part of me—knowing I could do something about it—I still know it's not my place to screw around with the Marine Corps personnel process. Much as I might want to."

Lise patted his hand, her expression both unsurprised and still sympathetic. "It's hell being the good guy."

***

Nate padded through the silent halls and down the stairs toward the kitchen. Staring at the ceiling and worrying didn't seem productive, so he might as well get some coffee and get something done. Granted, he had no idea where the cooks kept the coffee...but he had a million dollars of government reconnaissance training; he could surely divine its location.

He paused when the scent of brewed coffee hit him. This might be easier than he thought.

Entering the kitchen, all became clear. Brad sat at the kitchen table, typing away at a laptop. Of course. His steel gray Henley only accentuated the breadth of his shoulders, clinging to him unfairly. Nate looked over to the coffeemaker: half-full and warming. Brad had been here a while.

Maybe Nate wasn't the only one whose demons kept him awake. His eyes were drawn inexorably back to Brad, taking in the old, worn jeans that clung to his thighs...

Brad raised an eyebrow at him—

Nate realized he'd been staring. Fuck. He felt himself flush, blaming lack of sleep. It was absolutely that and not the way Brad looked all casual and relaxed in his home. Like he belonged there.

"Morning, sir. Help yourself." Brad nodded to the coffee.

Nate headed over to pour himself a cup. "Morning, Brad. So, apparently, my chief of staff thinks you're hot." Lise wasn't the only one, but Nate couldn't exactly say that part.

Brad paused. "Mark thinks I'm hot?" he asked, like he was actually considering it.

Brad considering it held far too much interest for Nate's body, so he did the expected thing and barked out a laugh. "Lise. She's a little taken, though, what with being in her third trimester." He filled his mug and immediately took a swig. He needed to be sharp to handle Brad this early.

Brad didn't even blink. "Pregnant chicks are hot."

Nate laughed again even as he realized: "There is no way this conversation ends well for me."

"You started it."

Sadly true. Bringing up Brad in the context of anything sexual—what was he thinking? Nate swallowed another mouthful to give himself something to do—

And then something occurred to him. "Wait, what are you doing here?" he asked, feeling like an idiot for being so slow.

"I work here."

"Today's your day off."

Brad tilted his head. "I wasn't aware you knew the intimate details of my schedule." He uncurled himself from behind his laptop.

"You're here on your day off," Nate scolded, low, leaning back against the counter and favoring Brad with a disapproving look.

"Paperwork," Brad dismissed. "Might as well do it here." Here where Brad could keep an eye on things because it was his job to see that Jackie was safe and nothing would get in the way of that. Not even pesky things like days off.

Nothing about it surprised Nate, but fuck if it didn't make him itch to crowd Brad back against the table, get close, bask in Brad's heat.

He didn't need any more temptation, dammit.

As Nate rescued himself from that tide of helpless want, Brad stared at him, clearly noting his silence. Why was the air suddenly tense between them?

Brad gamely continued on: "Since your child is otherwise occupied, and the president is in California, do you have elaborate plans for the day? Drunken debauchery, perhaps?"

Nate sucked in a calming breath and shook himself. "I love the fantasies you have about me. It's more like I'm availing myself of the gym and taking a conference call with Pakistan this evening."

"Working on a Sunday. God is appalled at you, sir." Thank god, banter. Banter, he could do. At least banter was safe—safer—ground.

"I'm sure He'd much prefer the drunken debauchery."

Brad grinned, quick and light. "Since your spotter is out of town, you can use the Secret Service gym if you like," Brad said, casual.

"Am I allowed?"

Brad raised an eyebrow in disbelief. "You're the vice president. Your alternatives are your home gym or the gym in the White House. I'm pretty sure the Service can accommodate you."

He had a point. "I don't think I've ever been to Secret Service HQ."

"I'll hold your hand so you don't get scared."

"I'm in awe of your magnanimity."

"'Am I allowed?'" Brad scoffed. "Christ. You just say that shit so that when they write about you in history books your agents will call you humble."

"For all those historians just lining up to write books about vice presidents."

"Not write about the prettiest veep there ever was? Like historians can resist that."

***

The distant echo of gunfire through the Secret Service halls made his detail visibly twitchy. Their reaction made Nate twitchy, so he turned around and regarded them frankly. "Breathe, gentlemen. In fact, feel free to take a break."

No one moved.

"We're in the Secret Service headquarters. I'm perfectly safe."

"Now, sir, you know that's not true. They let all kinds of disreputable characters into HQ. Ray Person, for one," Brad drawled, approaching from deeper inside the building. He'd changed into PT gear—olive drab shirt with "Colbert" stenciled on the chest and green USMC track suit pants. He was a walking advertisement for the Marine Corps in the bowels of the Secret Service, like a personal fuck you to anyone who might protest.

No one protested. Hell, several agents straightened to attention at Brad's appearance. Because of course they fucking did.

Nate turned to him. "If all I have to fear is incisive insight disguised as mouth vomit, I think I'm okay."

Another round of target practice echoed from somewhere down below, again setting his guys on edge.

"I think this calls for some immersion therapy," Brad offered, something conspiratorial in his grin. "Tell me, sir, when was the last time you went to the range?"

***

Satisfaction flooded Nate as shot after shot hit the target dead center. He could feel people watching, quite a few given it was a Sunday, but he ignored them and focused on the sidearm in his hands. He hadn't been shooting in ages, but it felt like no time had passed, handling a weapon as ingrained as breathing.

Earlier in his life, he might have worried that it meant killing came naturally to him. But he was older now, hopefully wiser, and he recognized that this was a skill, like any other. It could be used for good or ill.

Right now, he was happy to use it to school the fuck out of the agents around him.

When he ran out of ammo, he pulled off the safety glasses and protective headphones. A glance back told him that yes, he still had an audience. Including Brad, who watched him with that particular intensity that never failed to send a zing straight through Nate.

Like always, Nate shoved the feeling aside, raising a chin at Brad in vague challenge.

It got him that half-smile of Brad's, something just for him. Then Brad turned to the crowd. "Run along, children. Nothing to see here," he said, waving them off as he approached Nate. "Forgive them, sir. The sight of liberal, New England, Ivy League civilian overlords shooting guns confuses their lizard brains. I'm sure you can understand."

"Retired Marine," he pointed out.

"Don't try to apply logic to the situation. That just makes things worse."

Nate tipped his head and smiled. "I am assured of this."

Brad shared his smile, way too comfortable, and Nate kept forgetting how seductively easy it was to fall into Brad. The moment stretched—

And Brad looked away. He quickly shifted back, a bit more distance in his smile. "Gym, sir?"

The metaphorical anvil came crashing down. "Oh, fuck."

Brad cocked his head.

"I agreed to work out with you," he realized. He'd been so distracted by Brad's chest in a PT shirt, the relevance of Brad's PT shirt had escaped him.

A downright relishing smile appeared at that. "Don't worry, sir. I'll go easy on you."

***

Brad was a fucking liar whose goal in life was to shame Nate for not being the second coming of Chesty Puller crossed with an Olympic weightlifter.

That said, Nate's goal in life was never again to fail to live up to Brad's expectations of him, so by sheer stubbornness he managed not to disgrace himself.

He didn't need to walk up stairs or lift his arms above his head for a few days, anyway. If that was the price for Brad's vaguely impressed look at the end? It was totally worth it.

***

McCleary, a shift leader for the presidential security detail, transferred the next week. Donaldson was moving over to take his place.

"Did you hear McCleary decided to take a desk job?" Nate asked Brad as he came by for his daily check-in. Or daily stonewalling, to be more accurate.

"I may have heard something about it."

"Donaldson's transferring over to Eagle detail, so they're upping Hastings to head of my detail and bringing on a new shift leader."

"Anyone I know?" Brad asked mildly.

"Funny thing. Eric Kocher ring any bells?"

Brad smiled, slow and pleased. "Finally getting out of the advance man business, eh? His wife'll be happy about that."

Nate sent him a quelling look. "You don't happen to know anything about McCleary deciding to leave Eagle detail to sit behind a desk, do you?"

Brad arranged his expression into something thoughtful. Nate might have even believed it if he were someone else. "McCleary's a distinguished agent, but he is getting up there in years and Eagle detail isn't exactly conducive to regular family time. Bet his wife's happy, too."

Christ, Brad maneuvered to have McCleary retire so that Kocher could join his team. Nate wondered if he should fear for Hastings' safety.

"Approve of my detail yet, Brad?" Nate asked, resigned.

Brad's eyes gleamed. "We're getting there, sir."

***

Nate took Vince's offered hand in greeting. "Vince. Is there an update on the investigation?"

"Mr. Vice President, good to see you. And no, unfortunately we're still in a holding pattern there. The perpetrator or perpetrators have gone quiet, it seems."

Nate quashed his disappointment at that news. It was good to know—more than Brad had told him, certainly—but it didn't help with the ever-present feeling of helpless futility.

"Right, thank you."

"Our agents are ever-vigilant, sir, not to worry. But I did want to ask you something: are you hosting any backroom keggers I should be aware of?"

"I'm sorry?" Nate asked, thrown by the change in topic.

"I've never had so many requests to transfer to the vice presidential detail. From those who were previously requesting the presidential detail. It makes my life easier, surely, but it also makes me curious about why."

"I can assure you there are no keggers on offer. Though as a morale booster, I've heard worse."

"The Service doesn't have a morale problem."

Nate let his careful pause hang for a moment. "While I'm used to it in the world of professional politics, willful blindness in the man charged with protecting my daughter from a bullet doesn't inspire confidence."

Vince swallowed as Nate's meaning registered. "Yes, sir." He stiffly changed the subject: "I hear you're acquainted with Special Agent Kocher." Vince gestured the man forward.

Nate turned a genuine smile on Kocher and took his hand. "Eric, it's been too long. How's the family?"

"Doing well, sir, thank you. I heard about the threats. Don't worry, sir, Brad'll stop these guys."

Nate nodded as the constant, low-level worry flared again. "I know he will." Then he smiled, to lighten the mood again. "Well. Welcome to the 'little show with free parking.' That is what they call it, right, Vince?"

Vince coughed and shifted. "I'm sure I wouldn't know anything about that, sir."

Turning so Vince couldn't see his expression, Eric grinned the grin only a Recon Marine could lay claim to.

Nate grinned back, sharing in that moment of understanding. Minutely, his shoulders relaxed.

Huh. He hadn't even realized he'd been carrying any tension there.

***

Gossips that they were, it took about two-point-eight milliseconds before he had agents giving him knowing smirks.

Brad appeared in the hallway, offering Kocher a welcome-to-the-detail handshake and slap on the shoulder. Then he turned to Nate.

"Did you bitchslap the Assistant Director?" Brad asked, straight-up.

Nate looked innocent. "I merely reacquainted him with my expectations."

"Oorah, sir," Brad said, nakedly admiring.

Brad's approval radiated through him, as it always did, but Nate couldn't let himself get drawn into it. He might never get out. "Eric, get used to Brad's presence. When he's not watching my daughter, he's playing my personal mother hen."

"Like that's new," Eric dismissed.

Loud voices from down the hall interrupted whatever Brad was going to say, the unmistakable sound of Sam and Ainsley having one of their grand hallway debates. Brad tipped a salute at him and melted away. Nate stood still as Eric took up his post, waiting for them to circle around to him.

He swore, some days they just walked in circles to talk it out.

"If we reinstated the draft, at least people would experience the pain of losing their children equally and maybe they'd be a little less likely to bang the drumbeats of war," Sam proclaimed.

Ainsley shot right back: "And you'd get the very same result if we went to the gold standard and eliminated debt-financing. But, oh wait, that'd endanger your precious socialist programs, can't have that. Forcing kids to die in a war is a much better idea. But not any of our kind of kids, no no, the kids of those middle state people, you know, the ones who don't have the political connections that magically land their children in cushy stateside jobs."

"Better than the thin veneer of a volunteer military allowing the American people to turn a blind eye."

"Yes, Sam, because you absolutely know the hearts and minds of everyone who signs up, the vast majority of whom don't want to be there. Because people don't join the military out of honor or duty or a commitment to serving their country. No, it's just a place the social rejects land when they have no other options. Like your vice president, for example," she said, gesturing to Nate.

"That's me, social reject," Nate quipped. "Out of curiosity, is there anything you do agree on?"

Sam and Ainsley looked at each other, measuring. "The rule of law," Ainsley said.

"That we're a nation of laws," Sam nodded.

Nate looked between them. "That's it? That's your point of agreement?"

Sam looked rueful. "Hey, that's pretty much a coup for us."

Josh suddenly appeared in the hall, not even remotely surprised to find them wandering. "Senior staff's ready in the Oval."

"Ainsley derailed us by advocating the gold standard again. Oh, and before that I was regaled with a fifteen minute speech on why I should aspire to Andrew Jackson's greatness."

Josh tilted his head. "Andrew Jackson, the first president ever impeached?"

Sam nodded. "But he did make the Senate take it back."

"Well, in that case..."

Ainsley sent Josh an arch look, then gestured them all toward the Oval. "Let's go, gentlemen. It's rude to keep people waiting."

***

As the meeting wrapped up, Josh snapped his briefing book closed with extreme prejudice. "I want the revised policy summaries no later than this afternoon, two pages max, everyone."

At the general grumbling that got, Sam looked around pointedly, "Yes, that's right, now you know my pain. Just don't let Ainsley summarize anything for you."

"You saw the light."

"You reversed my position!"

"It was only twenty years ago, let's argue about it some more," Josh muttered.

"Reversed my position," Sam reminded him hotly.

"Ah, the good old days," Ainsley sighed.

Nate smiled at their camaraderie, at the warmth and affection between them. As always, he remained slightly set apart from it, by time, if nothing else. He imagined they'd have a similar reaction to Nate interacting with his Marines. It was comforting to have a place you belonged.

As people stood to leave, Josh raised his voice above the shuffling. "And I want a communications sidebar in my office in five."

"Speaking of, Donna called from the DNC. She wants to talk strategy," Will put in.

"Strategy, already?" Sam asked, long-suffering.

"It's always election season for someone," Josh reminded him.

Ainsley addressed Josh. "Did you know Donna once asked me if we looked alike?"

Sam looked appalled. "Donna thought you looked alike?"

Ainsley shook her head. "No, other people did; they were taking bets on when Josh would hit on me."

"You hit on my wife?" Sam asked Josh.

"What—no!" Josh protested.

Now Sam looked miffed. "Why not? She's attractive."

"That's not—she's not Donna," Josh finished. Nate stifled the smile at how this was going downhill for him.

"But she looks like her?" Sam persisted.

"No—"

A knock sounded from the door, then his personal aide, Riley, stuck his head in. "Mr. President, you're late for your next three meetings."

Sam got up and walked toward the door. "Riley, did you know people were once taking bets on when Josh would hit on Ainsley?"

Riley blinked. "There's no way this conversation ends well for me."

"I know the feeling," Josh muttered. Then Sam was gone and he turned to Ainsley. "Really? Now the whole day is gonna be about this."

Ainsley looked at him, serene. "Andrew Jackson was a hero of the republic."

"Oh, so you're punishing me? I was nice when Leo hired you," Josh protested.

"You called me 'Aimsley.'"

"That was an honest mistake. And I didn't call you on the Second Amendment stuff."

"Josh!" Sam beckoned from his outer office. Josh responded instantly, ducking out the door.

Nate chuckled low, marveling.

Ainsley turned to him. "What?" she asked, too innocent by half.

"You know just which buttons to push."

Her green eyes glittered. "Hero of the republic, Nate."

"I plead the fifth."

"No fun," she intoned.

"But since you've got Washington wired, do you want to help me motivate the guys dragging their heels on the drawdown?"

Ainsley smiled, brilliant and shark-like. "Give me a list of names. Defense contractors love me."

***

Celia held up the phone as Nate walked into his outer office. "Lise."

"I swear she has a tracker on me. I'll take it inside."

He walked to his desk and picked up the phone. Before he could even utter a greeting, Lise jumped in: "I hear the first lady's meeting with defense contractors."

"How do you—you know what? Never mind. Yes, we'll see if it helps any. But we have another problem: someone leaked the draft appropriations memo to the press."

"That was Martinez," Lise answered promptly, in-the-know as always. "He wants to kill the deal before anyone brings it to vote. He's already facing a tough primary challenge and doesn't want it on his record."

"I like it when our own people work against us."

"It is the democratic way," she intoned. "What did you think of the latest draft of the speech?"

Nate sighed at the papers sitting on his desk, covered in red. "Eliot does realize that Afghanistan isn't exactly a paragon of freedom and democracy, right? I honestly can't tell."

Lise matched his sigh. "He'll take another swing at it."

***

That afternoon, back at the Observatory, Nate held a party invitation in his hand, somehow still elegant even with the riotous pink and purple embossed lettering on cream cardstock. It was a pearlescent time bomb, he knew, given Jackie's nearby excitement.

Who printed invitations to a seven-year-old's birthday party? Who sent them home with the kids first? People who undoubtedly never had to think about little things like security and psychotic killers targeting their children. Nate almost envied them their naiveté.

The highlight of the party was a tour along the National Mall, probably very educational, with absolutely no way to secure it. Wide open spaces, lots of people milling about, Nate could feel a headache coming on just thinking about it.

A swift glance at Brad told him he wasn't alone in that opinion. Brad's mouth had thinned in unhappiness.

No, that wasn't right. He wasn't unhappy. It was more like regret. For Jackie, and maybe for him. Brad knew what was coming.

Ray actually shot Nate a sympathetic look. Fuck, when even Ray couldn't mock something...

"I can go, right?" Jackie asked, hardly able to stand her excitement. "I'll wrap the present myself and Brad can take Mr. Penguin and I promise I'll wear my gloves."

Fuck.

"I don't think so, sweetheart. You already have plans with your cousins, remember?"

***

'Epic' couldn't even fully capture the ensuing shitfit. He'd had drill instructors scream at him about what a worthless piece of shit disappointment he was, to his family, to his country, to the human race. Worse than useless, he couldn't even manage a straight belt buckle.

His sobbing seven-year-old, red-faced and yelling how much she hated him, that was worse.

He was hardly faint of heart, he knew it wasn't rational, but if it hadn't been her life at stake...

As it was, the whole ordeal left him exhausted. Jackie shut herself in her room, after swearing she'd never talk to him again, and now he had to go to a meeting with actual adults acting like seven-year-olds.

He just could not fucking win.

***

A day stretched to two to three and still Jackie wouldn't talk to him. Her single-minded focus would be impressive if not for the fact that it centered on how much she hated him.

"You did the same thing to me when you were her age," his mother said, amusement coloring her tone even over the phone.

"Please, laugh at my pain."

"This is what they call karmic justice, oh son of mine. I intend to enjoy it."

Nate rubbed the tight muscles at the base of his skull, the headache just pounding away. "She just—folds her arms and won't speak. I don't know what to do."

"You're the adult. You wait her out," she said, sympathy finally making an appearance. "At the very least, once the party has passed, there'll be little to be mad about."

Saturday couldn't get here quickly enough.

***

Jackie came home Saturday afternoon...and walked right past him, without a word. Nate just stood in the hallway like an idiot, thoroughly flummoxed by his child. Walt patted him on the shoulder as he passed, trailing after Jackie like the dutiful agent he was.

It was little comfort.

***

Sunday dawned cold and clear, with Jackie silently staring at her bowl of cereal as she shuttled the spoon from her mouth to the bowl and back again. The only sounds to be heard were chewing and the clink of the spoon in the bowl.

"Are you looking forward to seeing Grandma and Grandpa?" he tried, voice hitching only a little.

Jackie scooted off her chair and took her bowl to the sink, apparently finished. She left the kitchen without a word.

Nate stared at the three newspapers laid out for him, not seeing any of them. He could invade a country. He could help run a country, but he was completely at sea with this.

***

His mom called him later, after Mass and family brunch.

"Everything okay?" he asked.

"You'll be unsurprised to hear that you have a very willful child," she informed him. He'd almost call her sulky, but his mother never sulked.

"Is this the part where I get to be amused at your pain or can we wallow together?"

"Yes, yes, I'm a terrible mother."

"And I'm a terrible father. Isn't this fun?"

His mom sighed, sounding genuinely perplexed. "I tried to talk to her, but she remained quite unmoved. I'm afraid I wasn't much help."

"Any advice?"

"I don't think there's anything you can do. She has to move past it. Hunker down, I'm afraid."

Great.

***

"Daddy!" Jackie ran into his study, still in her church dress—with an additional splash of what looked like orange juice on the skirt, naturally—and promptly launched herself into his lap.

Nate rolled the chair back, bracing himself so they didn't topple over, even as Jackie wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him like it was a matter of life and death.

What the hell?

Nate held her close, trying not to let his voice wobble as he breathed in her shampoo, the lingering scent of incense from Mass. "Jackie," he greeted, relief thick in his voice. "What brought this on?"

"I missed you. Can we go to the park later?" she chirped happily, like she hadn't been ignoring him for the better part of a week.

"Sure," he said, at a loss. He caught movement in his doorway and looked up to see Brad checking on them before stepping out again.

Nate simply held Jackie, his brain following after Brad, a suspicion slipping through him. But for now he had Jackie back and that was all that mattered.

***

Nate caught Brad later, passing by in the hallway, headed out. He nodded his chin toward the study and Brad promptly changed direction, following him in.

"Did you say something to Jackie?" Nate asked him, soft.

Brad's expression didn't even flicker. It was a tell on its own, too composed to be a real reaction. Because Brad had expected this question, and prepared for it.

"Thank you," Nate said, putting appreciation into his look in a way Brad would surely read.

"I didn't—" Brad stopped himself, pressing his lips together firmly.

Nate called bullshit with a raised eyebrow, but voiced it, too: "Thank you for whatever you didn't do. Sometimes I can't see what's best, what's needed. I'm too close, maybe. All I know is Mom had no luck and then Jackie came back herself again, so thank you."

Nate stepped close and gripped Brad's shoulder, solid muscle reacting under his hand. He released Brad just as quickly and stepped past him toward the door, but still caught his scent along the way. It jogged old memories, startlingly familiar, and Nate was glad he had his back to Brad as he walked out. He had no idea what his expression betrayed, but knew Brad would read it effortlessly.

Because that was just how they were: Brad saw everything and Nate constantly pulled himself away.

***

Bright and early on Monday morning, Celia showed in Allison Barnes. She was blond, mid-thirties, beautiful in a girl-next-door kind of way, and look at that, had no ring on her finger.

Ainsley was really very transparent sometimes.

"Ms. Barnes," Nate greeted, reaching out a hand.

"Allison, please. So good to meet you, Mr. Vice President," she said, taking his hand in a firm, authoritative grip. Nate revised his opinion up a notch.

He gestured her over to the couch, while he took a chair. "Have a seat. The first lady raves about you. Shocking to find out you're a Democrat."

Allison smiled conspiratorially. "I find that we're rarely just our party affiliation. And people underestimate the first lady at their peril."

"Well do I know. So, you've done some good work at Emily's List."

"Yes, we've accomplished a great deal."

"That said, Emily's List is a single-issue organization. What makes you think you're ready to be my Deputy Chief of Staff?" Nate asked, making sure to inflect it with real curiosity rather than aggression.

Allison took it in stride. "That single-issue is inextricably linked with a multitude of others, from healthcare to privacy and beyond. It gave me experience in all manner of areas, which I'd draw upon here, working for you."

"Why are you moving on?"

"I've done all I can there."

"At a single-issue organization?" Nate asked, deadpan.

She flashed a smile, inclining her head. "The only way to advance to the upper ranks is to get elected to a political seat somewhere and I'm more interested in policy, frankly."

"Do you think it's prepared you for this kind of pressure cooker?" Nate asked, gesturing to the building around them.

"Is the White House faster-paced?" Allison asked, dry. "I would certainly hope so. It will be a challenge, but one I'll attack with pleasure. One I've been training for my entire career."

***

As soon as Allison left, Nate had Celia get him Lise. She probably already knew what he was going to say, but might as well make it official.

"What'd you think?" Lise asked without preamble.

"I don't think Allison's the right fit."

"Really? Huh. Didn't expect that." Lise sounded genuinely stumped by that. There was some victory in the fact that he could still surprise her.

"Going from a single-issue shop to the White House is a bit of a jump. You should send her over to Donna at the DNC. That'll get her some experience on a national scale with multiple issues. I liked her, though," he added, just to make that clear.

"The first lady will be so glad to hear it."

"Don't you start, too."

"Never."

***

Nate walked out of his office and stopped short.

From the hallway wall, Brad raised a challenging eyebrow. Problem?

"Why are you on my detail?" Nate asked without preamble, falling into step with Brad as they headed for the Oval.

"Ramirez's kid had a school play."

"That was last week." Brad sent him a sharp look before returning to his careful scan of their surroundings as they walked. "What, you think I don't know?" Nate asked, affronted.

"I am entirely unsurprised that you do. You're correct; the play was last week, but in order to attend Ramirez traded shifts with Wong, whose wife has some art exhibit she's being shown at, so I offered to step in."

"In exchange for what?"

"He'll owe me."

Nate just looked at him.

Brad shrugged. "I have no one at home waiting for me, unlike most of these guys. And you never know when a favor will come in handy."

"As if you ever call in favors," Nate scoffed. "But you do realize this means you have to protect my life with yours." Saying it aloud made Nate realize how much he didn't like that thought.

"All part of the job."

"And here I thought those days were behind us." The idea of Brad protecting Jackie was reassuring. But Brad protecting Nate? That just felt...wrong. Like it should be the other way around.

Brad must have read it in his face because the corner of his mouth lifted, the tiniest bit. "Sir, is there some confusion about my role here? Do I need to draw a diagram?" he asked, not unkindly.

"Let's just make sure we don't find ourselves in that situation."

Nate didn't wait for him to respond, simply walked into the Oval's outer office, where Ginger nodded him to go ahead. Nate walked in, pausing at the threshold, surprised that only Ainsley waited inside.

"Oh, Mrs. Seaborn, hello. I thought I was meeting with the president."

"Ainsley," she reminded him as Brad took up a discreet position. "You know, if you insist on addressing me formally, I may make you call me Dr. Seaborn."

"You're not a doctor."

"I have a Juris Doctorate."

Nate scoffed. "It's the White House; the gardener's got a JD."

"Explains the organization of the rose garden." She shook her head. "But yes, you are meeting with my husband. He's late. I figured I'd keep you company while he's regaling some poor soul with the virtues of sailboats."

"I like sailboats."

"Now I know where to send him the next time he wants to talk about them." She paused and regarded him, something calculating in her gaze. Shit. "I heard you didn't think Allison was the right fit. Shame."

"She needs a few more years' seasoning." Nate regarded her evenly, refusing to back down from that assessment.

"I don't disagree. But on another note, will you do me a favor?"

"If it involves setting me up with one of your many marriageable acquaintances, you can forget that right now."

"Consider it a public service. I know how you support public service."

"Wow, two minutes into this conversation and you've turned me into a gigolo. That's kind of impressive. But—can I just remind you of the last time you sent me on a public service mission?"

"What? Felicity had a lovely time."

"Telling the press that we slept together! It was a PR nightmare."

"She simply wanted to have a story after telling all her friends she had a date with the vice president-elect. No one believed that sordid story."

"Yes, if by 'no one' you mean, The Washington Post, the New York Times, and every basement blogger in the English-speaking media world."

"To be fair, I think you got some headlines in the French ones, too. It's because you're so fetching."

"No dates, Ainsley."

She frowned at him. "You're not going to bump into your future spouse on the street, Nathaniel."

"Who says I want a spouse?"

"Planning to take a vow of celibacy, are you?"

"Ainsley!" Nate said, fairly scandalized to be having this conversation in the Oval Office. And acutely conscious of Brad behind him, taking it all in.

"Don't you want Jackie to have a mother figure?" she asked, earnest. Nate made an insulted noise.

Ainsley simply plowed on. She looked behind him. "Brad, you've spent considerable time with Jackie. Doesn't she need a maternal influence?"

"I believe I got the same question from an Afghani tribal leader on my last advance trip."

Nate forced himself not to laugh, even as that tickled something at the back of his mind.

Ainsley had to fight to keep from smiling herself. "I'm not sure whether to be insulted or impressed by your audacity."

Just then the doors sprang open, admitting Sam with a burst of energy. "Nate. Ainsley. How's everyone doing?"

"Special Agent Colbert just compared me to a thug."

Sam turned to Brad, face completely straight. He stuck out his hand. "Sam Seaborn."

"Brad Colbert."

"Stasi?" Sam asked, twinkle in his eye.

"Afghani tribal leader," Brad shot back, deadpan.

"Nice," Sam complimented, nodding.

"No need to rush to my defense," Ainsley said.

"There's really no danger of that. Now why are people asking me about portraits and pants?"

"Planning not to wear any?" Ainsley asked brightly. "That'd certainly spice up the official portrait."

"Ainsley—"

"I simply don't see why it should be an issue if I want to wear a skirt."

"Wear a skirt, pants, pantaloons, I don't give a damn. But why is Dale Cole talking to me about something this ridiculous?"

"People think it'll be a thing. Pantaloons?"

He waved a hand, as if it offered some kind of explanation. "Meeting with the historical society of How the West Was Won or something."

"Concerns about my official portrait are ridiculous and that group isn't?"

"Well...they're sending me a hat."

"Do you know how many other men I could have married?"

"But then you wouldn't be first lady."

"You sure about that?"

Sam looked daunted for a moment, then forged ahead: "And on that happy note, senior staff's coming in in five so we can talk minimum wage. Ainsley, I'd like to note how inclusive I'm being."

"You want the opposition's angle on it," she translated.

"So that's a bonus."

***

On their way out of the Oval Office and down the hall to his own office, Brad's comment finally landed. "You advanced foreign travel?" Nate asked him.

"Yes."

"Including mine?"

"Yes."

"Would you happen to have advanced my trip to Morocco?" Nate asked testily.

Brad's shit-eating grin was answer enough, but that didn't stop him from blithely saying: "Their brothels were very elegant."

"Motherfucker," Nate accused. Of course that was Brad. Of course. "Do you even know how embarrassing that was?"

"I heard you handled yourself well."

"They thought I was rejecting their hospitality. Then, after I convinced them that no, really, I was perfectly happy without a prostitute's company, thank you, then they thought I was insulting the beauty of Moroccan women."

"Moroccan women are very beautiful," Brad agreed.

"I had to play the widower card. Do you even know how much fatherly advice I got, about how a young girl needed a mother, I should really get on with finding a replacement?"

"I'm sure they were happy to volunteer their help with that."

"I hate you so much right now."

***

Kara smirked at him from where she sat propped against the headboard. Then shook her head. "I have no words."

"Don't start."

"A Brad-curated tour through a Moroccan brothel and you passed? Who does that?"

Nate floundered, too many things wrong with that to even know where to begin. But one thought overshadowed all the rest. "I'm married. To you, in fact."

The humor drained from Kara's face, leaving nothing but a painful sort of sympathy. "Nate...you know you're not."

Nate looked away, feeling that like a lance to the heart. But Kara wouldn't let him, her hand on his shoulder bringing his focus back. He looked at her, stray wisps of blond hair framing her face, loving her more than he could even stand.

"Hey," she said, nudging him. "You and me, we were great. Epic. But it's done. It's not a betrayal to want more."

"It feels like it is," he admitted as he curled around her, hating everything that led them to this.

"Get over it," Kara shot back, stunning with her compassion, as always. "You don't have divided loyalties."

Nate shook his head and looked away. "I do. I always have." His mind skipped unerringly to Brad. As always.

"Please. You think I didn't know about your thing for Brad?"

Nate stiffened, not expecting that. He looked back to her and met her eyes. "What?"

"I have eyes. And I know you a little bit. I was fine with it. I am fine with it. So this thing you're doing?" Kara gestured to him, his behavior, something. "At a certain point you're betraying yourself. I don't want that." She took a moment to let that sink in. Then she softened: "You're really boring when you're playing a martyr, you know."

Nate found it in himself to smile at the last, even if he couldn't bring himself to internalize anything else. "Gee, thanks."

"Don't thank me, just go get some. Christ, I have to fix everything."

"Still not patronizing brothels," Nate protested because really, that was never going to happen.

A wicked sort of glee snuck into Kara's smile. "But just to be clear, if it were Brad offering himself in the brothel..."

"You know, I really don't like you," he shot back.

Kara smiled, wistful. She pressed careful fingertips against his cheek, like he might break if she pushed too hard. "Sometimes I wish that were true. It might help."

***

Nate jerked awake, but he still felt that hit. His hand went to the cord around his neck, fingering the rings there. Sometimes Kara seemed so disappointed with him and even though he knew it wasn't real, it still felt that way. He still wanted to please her.

He just kept forgetting that he never could. Not anymore.

***

"Not more Kevin Kahn. That man hates me," Sam said.

"You hate him back," Josh reminded him.

Sam considered that for a beat. "True." As the economic advisers filed in, Sam turned to Nate, amused. "Want to hear something great? Dale Cole was in here earlier telling me that you and the Secretary of the Navy had some plot to keep your old captain from making general and that it was gonna turn into a crisis for the ages."

Nate tensed. "What'd you say?"

"What'd I say? I laughed him out of the room. As if you'd ever compromise your integrity, come on."

Josh watched Nate keenly. "This gonna turn into a thing?"

"Not unless Dale Cole manufactures one," Nate bit out.

"No enemies necessary; we do just fine on our own," Sam quipped.

Josh turned to Sam. "Yeah. Why was Dale Cole in here talking about—"

Sam immediately picked up his train of thought: "I asked him about Ainsley's birthday—"

Ainsley sailed in then, practically glowing. "You have covered my birthday. This Dale Cole news is all the present I could want."

"Really?" Sam asked, hopeful.

"No."

Sam visibly deflated.

Ainsley continued on: "But I am firing Dale Cole. Josh, is Donna happy running the DNC?"

"You want Donna to—you realize you're a Republican?" Josh asked, like she might not.

"What about suggesting Donna when I needed someone?" Nate asked her.

"That's just until Lise gets back; Donna deserves a permanent position."

"You wanted her for yourself. We're all just puppets in your master plan," Nate grumbled.

"You're just realizing this now?" Ainsley asked, not unkindly.

"Don't encourage her," Sam said, long-suffering.

***

After the meeting let out, Nate walked into Mark's office and just looked at him.

Mark fidgeted under his gaze. "Is there something I can do for you, sir?"

"Did you tell Dale Cole about my conversation with the Secretary of the Navy?"

Mark paled. He started to say something, stopped, then started again. "I...might've said something about it at drinks."

"You might've said something about my private conversation to the first lady's chief of staff?"

"No, to your former deputy. It was casual, in passing. We're friends from the campaign, you know, war stories. I wanted to know what it was about."

"Well, your passing conversation led Dale to the President of the United States with concerns about abuse of power."

If possible, Mark paled even more.

Nate knew it wasn't malicious, but stupidity didn't have to be malicious to be dangerous.

It was the theme of this whole fucking mess, at root of which was Encino Man. He'd proved the point ten times over in Iraq.

"If not for the president knowing me better than that, it would've been a thing. One that could hurt us and him. Did you mention it in passing to anyone else?"

"Of course I didn't."

"I would've said the same about you telling tales to Dale Cole, but here we are. Look—I know I've asked a lot of you and it's been tough, but you can't go outside this office with stuff like that. You have questions, you ask Lise or you ask me, got it?"

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir."

"Don't be sorry. Be better."

"Yes, sir."

***

And now for our Inside the Beltway segment. The first lady's chief of staff, Dale Cole, resigned today to spend more time with family. A search for a replacement is underway, with several high-profile candidates already under consideration. As is well-known in the Beltway, the first lady has a significant voice in this Administration, despite being a member of the Republican Party. Indeed, some have attributed President Seaborn's success to her moderating influence.

Turning now to foreign policy, the president will be hosting the Indian prime minister at next week's State Dinner. Our Senior White House Correspondent will give us an inside look at what we can expect from their joint statement. Wendell?

***

Nate made his way down to the room under the Oval Office, where Secret Service agents spent their downtime. He zeroed in on Brad immediately, sitting not far from the door, typing on a computer and muttering to himself. "Fuck you, Kyrzbekistan. ISPs can't even store IP addresses. Backwards fucking hick country. Too busy sucking commie strongmen cock to enter the 21st Century."

"You know they can't hear you, right, Brad?" Nate asked.

Brad—and the rest of the room—bolted to standing faster than a blink.

"Keep your seats, don't mind me," Nate said, waving them off with a knowing grin. He regarded Brad, all decked out in a tux.

The sight was...

Anyway.

"So this is where you hide out," he said, surveying the oval room, an odd mix of decrepit computers and full-length mirrors. "Nice tux. Is it bulletproof?"

"Yes, sir."

Nate grinned. "Of course it is. I hear you're my escort tonight."

Brad snorted. "If I were, I'd be getting paid a hell of a lot more for a much happier ending. But I am your protection."

A part of Nate desperately wanted to pursue Brad down that hustling trail, but the logical part of himself knew that talking sex with Brad—in a room full of highly observant witnesses...or anytime, really—would not end well.

He was tempted, though.

"Kocher's looking for you in the head," Nate said instead.

"And you have nothing better to do than wander into the Service's on-site command center and let me know," Brad mused.

"I'm avoiding Mark."

"Yes, I can see how ducking your acting chief of staff would get things accomplished."

"He'll just simplistically talk at me about doing what I know I have to, but don't want to do. Delaying that can never be a bad thing." Nate looked down at the computer Brad had been insulting. "Progress on the case?"

"Don't worry about it, sir."

Nate shook his head at the familiar brush-off. Kocher appeared at his elbow, bobbing his head at Brad in greeting. "Brad, someone said you were—"

"Taking a shit, I heard. You heading out?"

"You good?"

"Go on. I got this."

"And by 'this' he means me," Nate informed Eric. "Leave now. Give my love to Tess."

"God knows he has a lot of love to give," Brad drawled.

Eric grinned, quick. "I'm not touching that one. Thanks, Brad, I owe you one."

"I'll add it to your tab."

Nate regarded Brad steadily. "This is how it's gonna be?"

"Can't imagine what you mean. I'm just here, protecting your body from all the people you're not letting touch it."

***

Nate was learning to hate State Dinners. It was like open season on single vice presidents and no one had even given him the decency of a head start. Or a mercy killing.

Plus, the president had everyone in white tie—a nod to President Bartlet, or so Nate was told—so he was stuck in this ridiculous get-up that only served to wash out his pale skin. Which made it all the more bizarre that he had women hitting on him.

Thus, he was hiding out in this strategic corner of the South Portico. Just him and the night air. And Brad.

Brad who was taking Kocher's babysitting duty very seriously and now refused to let him go anywhere alone. Even in the White House.

Brad didn't look pasty in the white tie. No, he looked downright tan. In DC. In March.

Nate was not bitter in the slightest. And why couldn't the women hit on Brad, anyway? At least that'd make sense.

"There you are; your admirers are looking for you," Ainsley said from the door.

"And so I'm out here," Nate said. He smiled at Ainsley and nodded in appreciation. "Mrs. Seaborn, you're a vision." She was, resplendent in a deep green figure-hugging gown that no doubt complemented her eyes. Not that Nate could tell, given the backlighting and shadows, but he was sure she had stylists for that sort of thing.

She smiled as she came to stand beside him. "Ainsley," she reminded him, never willing to let the 'No Mrs. Seaborn' thing go, even at a State Dinner. "And thank you, sir. As are you."

Nate snorted. "I look pale."

"Yet you're still hiding out on the balcony. Not so effective at driving off the ladies, your pallor," Ainsley said, baiting him.

"Which is how I know the interest isn't genuine. They're seeing the office, not the man."

Ainsley huffed out a laugh. She angled her head and invited Brad into the conversation: "Brad, would you please assure our vice president that even if he weren't inhabiting the office, he'd still have hopeful one-night-stands chasing after him?"

Nate flushed. "Brad, would you please not lie to me like that?"

Brad sent him a look that plainly said he was offended by the very notion that he'd lie. Then, deadpan: "I'd jump you, sir."

Nate's face got even hotter and Ainsley laughed aloud. "See? You even nudge our solidly heterosexual military men over to the other team."

"Traitor," Nate muttered.

Ainsley dusted off his coat and smiled at her victory. "I'll have no more self-criticism from you, my friend. Now dinner is almost served, so your absence is turning conspicuous. And later you simply must dance with me, so we can make dear Brad here terribly jealous and my husband terribly concerned about a Republican plot to overthrow his presidency."

Faced with Ainsley's expectant look, he could hardly decline. He sighed, took her arm, and walked her toward the entrance to the Blue Room. "There are some things about the two of you that I don't want to know, Mrs. Seaborn."

"Ainsley," she corrected as she preceded him into the light.

***

Nate stood and maneuvered out from among the chairs, following the general exodus to the East Room. Beside him, Theresa, the Deputy Press Secretary, stood and turned in the same move, yelping as her heel got tangled in her dress. Nate reacted, rushing in to catch her as she tripped, momentum carrying both of them back into the wall and the sharp edge of the mantle.

Pain exploded at the base of Nate's skull, momentarily blacking out his vision; he let out a sharp hiss.

Theresa instantly crowded close, eyes full of concern. "Oh, my God, I'm so sorry. Are you—should I get someone?" she asked.

"That won't be necessary," Brad answered from behind her, already tugging Nate away.

"I'm fine, Theresa. Don't worry. Please excuse me," Nate said as Brad all but hauled him past the butler's pantry, into the family dining room, and down into a chair. "What the hell, Brad?"

Light fingertips brushed over his hand, clamped tightly over the nexus of pain, still radiating outward. The contrast in sensation made him suck in his lip, swallow.

Then Brad moved away, murmuring into his wrist, leaving Nate flustered and irritated. "Whatever you're doing, Brad, stop," Nate snapped.

Ainsley hurried in. "Nate, I heard that hit from five seats away. Are you all right?" She looked down at him, concerned, expression at odds with the finery she wore.

Fuck, this was going to ruin the whole night for everyone.

Nate stood. "I'm fine, Ainsley, just a casualty of ball gowns and heels, I'm afraid."

"And you looked so fetching in them," she said mournfully.

"Already mocking my pain? See, Brad, it's like business as usual around here," he said, gingerly pulling his hand from his head and checking to make sure there was no blood.

"You're going downstairs to get a CT scan, sir."

"I'm going to stay here because I'm fine," Nate said tartly.

Brad was in front of Nate in two long strides. He clasped his shoulder and squeezed. Nate looked down at his hand, then focused on Brad's face, which was clearly his intent.

"Sir, if you die, your child will be an orphan. That zit-scarred mental subdefective, Ray Person, will have to raise your child. Do you really want to inflict that upon her? Or on the rest of the world?" Brad waited, patient-face perfectly in place, the kind he used on recalcitrant officers who were going to do what he said, they just didn't know it yet.

The argument was patently ridiculous...but it was Brad. Everything in Nate wanted to acquiesce. And what harm would it do, in the end?

Slowly, Nate nodded. "I'm going to get a CT scan."

"Excellent idea, sir." Brad said it like it had been Nate's idea all along, releasing Nate to turn away. But Nate didn't miss the way his eyes relaxed, the way he seemed just a little bit lighter, unburdened of some worry. And that? That made it all worth it.

Nate turned to Ainsley, who was studying Brad with interest. "Will you—"

"Make your excuses, yes, of course," she said, pulling her attention back to him and smiling tightly, concern still hovering at the edges.

"Don't worry," he implored. "Takes more than a stumble to take me out."

"I have no doubt." She kissed his cheek and disappeared out the door.

Brad placed a firm hand between Nate's shoulder blades and steered him out the side door and into the elevator hall. "Then again, sir, you're not as young as you used to be," Brad commented.

"Fuck you very much. Why am I listening to you?" he asked as he dutifully followed Brad into the elevator.

The doors shut noiselessly. "Because I'm right. And when you're thinking clearly again, you'll see the elegance of it. This way you won't have to dance with all the marriageable young ladies vying for your attention," he said lowly into Nate's ear. He really needn't stand so close...not that Nate would object.

"I take back every terrible thing I've ever said about you," Nate said as the doors opened onto the ground floor and Brad moved away from him.

"That's what I thought."

***

There was a bit of drama at last night's State Dinner. Vice President Nate Fick was taken to the on-site medical facility for a CT scan after another partygoer's stumble gave him a nasty blow to the head. Thankfully, after a brief examination, the doctors sent him home with a clean bill of health.

The vice president has been a key figure in the wrap-up of Operation Enduring Freedom and he'll be spearheading the withdrawal of forces over the next two months. Given the relatively short timeframe, the Administration is breathing a sigh of relief that their point man will remain on point.

***

"You seem...discontent."

Nate rubbed the bridge of his nose. "It's this speech. It's not right."

"Not right?"

"It's all antiseptic political bullshit. Eliot tries, and means well, but he doesn't get it. Can't capture the feeling of it. This," he raised the sheaf of papers, red scrawled throughout, "this isn't it."

Brad shrugged. "What do you want to say?"

Nate leaned back, the leather of his executive chair creaking under his weight. "I want to say our ambitions were great, but the men who held them were small. That America can do anything it decides to do, but can't create a secular liberal democracy out of a tribal theocracy in a year or even ten years. I want to say it's not their fault—all our servicemen and women did the best they could with what they had and we should all get on our knees in thanks. I want to say we achieved the goal we should have set—a mostly-stable nation, one where terrorists find it difficult to regroup and attack us—and that not achieving a pie-in-the-sky goal does not a failure make. That our brothers in arms did not die for a lost cause, even if it feels like they did."

Brad looked at him, solemn and silent, and his expression sent "I trust in your judgment" careening through Nate's head, a desperate echo from another life, the one thing keeping him afloat in a sea of chaos.

Brad's voice snapped him back to the present: "You want to speak to them like a Marine."

Nate sighed. "But I'm not there to speak as a Marine and I can't say any of that." He tossed the pages onto his desk. Might as well use them for kindling at this point.

Brad remained silent, radiating support despite not doing anything at all. As he always had.

"Do you think I should send someone in my place?" he asked finally.

Brad cocked his head at him, like he was trying to figure out why Nate would ask. "I think ceremony and tradition are important, when the intent is legitimate. I think there's no one better to close this war."

"You know about the side trip?" Nate asked, curious.

Brad's frown said he'd thought about it and didn't approve. "Pakistan is more problematic."

"Of course you know about the side trip," Nate muttered. Then to Brad: "You have concerns?"

"About you traveling to the world's most dangerous place, where your protection depends on local law enforcement, which is thoroughly, irrefutably, damn-well proudly corrupt? No, no concerns at all."

Nate's jaw worked. "I don't have to go. It's really just for regional engagement, a gesture to placate them some, to let them know we're still committed to the relationship, such as it is. But after everything with Jackie..."

"Loathe as I am to see you jaunting off to terrorist hotbeds, no changing behavior, remember?"

"No one knows about the trip. Well, no one's supposed to know, the Iceman aside—" Brad frowned. "What?" Nate asked in response.

"It's odd to be the one spouting principles, between the two of us."

Nate refused to get sidetracked: "I'd cancel the trip if you thought it best," he said, laying it out between them. "I don't have to be there."

It visibly startled Brad, nothing anyone else could see, but Brad held everything in his eyes. And Nate had surprised him.

"You're really surprised by that?" Nate asked curiously.

"Protectees usually tell the Service what they're doing, not the other way around."

"I'm not telling the Service; I'm asking you."

Brad looked down, collecting himself, maybe. He looked back up almost immediately. "You'd regret it if you don't go. It's something you need to see through."

Nate felt the truth of that somewhere low. "There at the beginning and at the end. There's certainly a nice symmetry to it. I just don't even fucking know if that's worth anything anymore."

"Make it worth something to you and let the rest take care of itself," Brad told him.

***

Brad and Eric stood beside each other on the tarmac, both scanning their surroundings for any hint of threat, like a matching pair. Nate shouldn't find the sight so reassuring—agents did this all the time—but he did. Brad and Eric working together again, even without the camo and heavy weaponry...something about that felt right.

"But how long will you be gone?" Jackie asked again, tugging on his hand.

He knelt down to her level. "Just a couple days. You won't even miss me," Nate said, going for reassuring and trying not to let anything creep into his voice. He was acutely conscious of Brad and Eric not far off, the rest of his detail, flight crew, Vicky, all waiting on him.

It'd be very bad if he lost it. That could not happen. It'd worry Jackie.

"I want to come, too," she persisted.

"Jackie, we talked about this. It's a work trip, remember? And you get to have Maddy and Ben come stay with you. That's fun, right?"

"I guess."

"C'mere. Give me a hug and then I have to go."

Jackie launched herself at him, hugging him with the kind of desperation that spoke of long separations.

"Hey, now," he soothed, patting her on the back. "I'll be back before you know it."

"You have to. Brad's worried," she said, pulling away to accuse him properly. All Nate's fault, of course.

Nate chuckled. "Brad, huh?"

"No more work trips unless we get to come."

Nate grinned and kissed her forehead. "Mind Aunt Vicky while I'm gone. I love you." He gave her one more kiss, then released her and looked up at Vicky.

"Come on, Jackie. We can watch from the car," Vicky said, reading his mind and reaching for Jackie's hand. Jackie started toward her, then reversed and hugged Nate's legs once more before finally trudging off and taking Vicky's hand.

Nate stood and cleared his suddenly-tight throat as Brad came up to stand beside him, holding the silence around him like a shroud.

"Call me if there are any problems," Nate said once he was sure his voice wouldn't betray him.

"There won't be any problems."

"Brad." Nate waited until Brad looked at him directly. "Call me if there are."

"Roger that. But we're squared away, sir. Don't worry about us. You just watch your six."

"That's what I've got Eric for."

"He doesn't watch it like I do."

"I'd certainly hope not," Nate said dryly, trying to turn it into a joke.

Something flickered across Brad's face, too fast to catalogue, but it made Nate's stomach clench. "Just...don't take any unnecessary risks," Brad said, uncharacteristically serious. Maybe Jackie hadn't been projecting her own worry onto Brad, after all.

"Careful, Brad, someone might think you care."

"Only about myself. If you get killed, our perfect rep goes to shit. Please don't do me like that, sir." Definitely not how Nate wanted to do him.

"I'll take it under advisement." One last half-smile and he turned for the plane, Eric falling in behind him.

He didn't look back.

***

Jackie sniffled at him over the phone, proving once again that she was way too tech-savvy for a seven-year-old.

Especially when it left Nate standing alone in some random, nondescript CHU, feeling like pretty much the worst parent ever.

"Daddy, I want you to come home."

"I know, sweetheart. I want to come home, too."

"Then why can't you?"

"I have to work," he said, miserable. "It won't be much longer."

He could hear movement on the other end of the line. Jackie called out, "Brad! Make Daddy come home."

Nate smiled despite himself.

"I think secret-agents-in-training should be asleep right now," Brad said.

"But he's not here to read me the book with the purple crayon," she protested.

"New plan of action: you go find the book with the purple crayon and let your father go work so he can come back faster."

Nate heard the phone shifting, rubbing against something, and then Brad's voice cleared. "We're good here, sir. You can get back to collecting concubines."

"Brad, this isn't a secure line. To all the foreign intelligence agencies listening in right now, he was joking."

"Was I?"

"I found it!" Jackie said in the background.

"Better hurry back, sir. I'd hate for you to be replaced."

***

Nate stood off to the side with General Camden as the US Ambassador to Afghanistan made his remarks. It was so formal, so structured—with a color guard, flag ceremony, the whole nine. All so very civilized...or at least pretending to be so. The complete opposite of rushing headlong into the shit, as they had in the beginning.

Camden idly read through his speech again. Nate had his remarks on cards, but he wouldn't need them. He knew what he was going to say.

Camden snorted as he got to the end, then firmly closed the sheaf of papers.

Nate raised an eyebrow at him.

"You ever think this is how it'd end?" Camden asked, gesturing at the dutifully assembled crowd with the rolled-up speech. His distaste for the pomp was plain to see.

Nate wondered how many of them held Camden's distaste for the whole thing. Standing in the hot sun, probably more than a few.

In answer to Camden's question, Nate simply shrugged. "Our path is set by others."

"Until it's not." Camden looked at him with a piercing, frank gaze and yeah, this man wanted to be president. Had the fire for it. And the ego.

"Until it's not," Nate agreed. Sudden applause from the sea of faces, American and Afghani alike, signaled the end of the Ambassador's speech. "That's my cue," Nate said over Ambassador Harrison's introduction, nodding to Camden and then heading to the stage.

He shook Jim's hand and smiled in thanks before he took his place behind the microphone.

"Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for that and all the work you do."

Nate took a moment to look at the crowd, the words coming easily now that he was here: "I once stood where you now stand; at attention on the sands that gave birth to civilization, in a uniform I was both proud and humbled to wear. We stepped onto the path of history, in the footsteps of giants. Before us strode the Persian Empire, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great, and behind us were massed the combined forces of the free world. It might have served us better to remember how those campaigns came to an end."

Short, knowing laughs ebbed through the crowd at Nate's one acknowledgment of their folly.

He waited a moment for them to quiet down, then continued: "Our goals were, and remain, worthy. The freedom of every man and woman to govern themselves, safe from madmen seeking to crush them under the yoke of control, will always be the greatest principle of America. Our brothers and sisters in arms have given blood, sweat, and tears for these ideals. Some have given limb, and some life." Nate swallowed at the reminder of too many lost friends. He could see the same emotion mirrored in many of the faces before him.

"You have faced odds which could at best be called overwhelming, with the honor and fortitude that raised America from colonies subject to the whims of a king, to the world's finest republic. Through determination and faith, you have taken up the duty that fell to you—that of finding the evils of intolerance and extremism which had found purchase in this unsettled soil, and pulling them out by the roots—and performed it admirably and well."

"It falls now to the Afghani people to move forward into the future, masters of their own destiny. As we leave these lands, we the United States find ourselves poorer for those we have lost, but richer for knowing we have extended our hand to another nation. We hope to continue supporting each other in the spirit of friendship and cooperation. To move ever forward into a world with liberty, justice, and, perhaps most importantly, freedom for all."

As applause rang out, Nate tried to put his appreciation into a look, hoping to convey some small measure of what he felt. It wasn't enough, but it was all he could do.

Nate was becoming far too familiar with that sentiment.

***

After that, Pakistan was a clusterfuck wrapped in an epic game of grab-ass.

But hey, he didn't get shot and nobody blew him up. That was something.

***

Winging his way back over Europe, he got an email:

From: Lise
To: Nate
Subject: I'm in labor

All the networks are using your "I once stood where you now stand" clip to cover the withdrawal ceremony. You look tired.

Nate made some kind of disbelieving sound, enough to get a raised eyebrow from Eric.

"My chief of staff is a robot," he explained.

"Unless she's a killer robot from the future, not my business."

"I wouldn't put that past her, actually," he muttered, typing a response.

From: Nate
To: Lise
Subject: Re: I'm in labor

You're having a baby; why are you emailing me?

From: Lise
To: Nate
Subject: Re: I'm in labor

It's endless and I'm refusing to speak to my husband. The whole process is an offense to my dignity.

Nate laughed aloud. Then he sent an email to Celia about going to visit the hospital when they landed.

Finally, something to be happy about.

***

Nate heard Ray long before he saw him. "They took, like, four guys from CAT and used 'em to augment the protective detail of some teeny bopper concert. Two guys on the CAT team against a whole crowd of manic pre-teens!"

"That's not even a team. That's a partnership or something," Walt said, sounding offended.

"Very astute, Walter. Methinks someone needs to tell the Assistant Director of Protective Operations the definition of the word 'team.'"

"I'm just saying!" Walt protested. "What are they gonna do? Counterassault through the suburbs?"

"As Brad says, no one but executives should even have CAT teams," Ray declared, affecting Brad handing down the One True Word.

Walt snickered as Nate rounded the corner. They both spotted him immediately. Walt straightened. Ray made grabby hands at Nate like such a thing wasn't horribly beneath him as an adult and a man and a Marine.

"Sir, you've returned to us, and with all your body parts still attached. Well, all the ones we can see, anyway. Good on you. Brad'll owe Kocher a thank-you rimjob for sure."

"Yeah, maybe Brad'll calm down now," Walt said, clearly hoping.

"Since that's only logical, no way in hell, dude."

"He hasn't been this wound up since the campaign," Walt lamented.

Nate looked between Ray and Walt. "Not here now, is he?"

Ray pulled on some mock-surprise. "Funny thing happens when you dose someone's coffee with sleeping pills. Who knew?"

Nate smiled. "I'm sure I'll hear all about it later. But in the meantime—"

Nate stepped into the den, to the raucous cry of "Daddy!" He had an armful of Jackie a moment later, sweet relief sweeping through him. He hadn't been worried for himself, not really—what will be will be and all—and he had ultimate faith in Brad's ability to keep Jackie safe in his absence.

It was just nice to have concrete evidence of that, tugging on his tie and leading him to her improvised fortress.

And yet even as she chattered at him and part of his mind critiqued the fort's structural integrity, he couldn't help feel unsettled. About what, he couldn't begin to say.

***

"You look like crap," Lise said by way of greeting. "Please tell me you didn't run into any reporters on your way in."

"None that I saw. And why are we talking about me? You just had a baby. Congratulations," Nate said, grinning. He perched beside her, taking her hand warmly.

"Yes, that. I've been traumatized for life. I may never recover."

"Not for eighteen years, anyway. I saw Marcus and the baby. He barely even looked up long enough to take the cigar."

"What does he get presents for? He didn't do anything. Didn't even mock my pain; he tried to be supportive," she said, like that was the great offense.

"Presents aren't just for him. I've got a horrendously expensive bottle of Macallan 25 for you in the hall."

Lise's breath caught. "Well, what the hell's it doing out there?"

***

"All hail the conquering hero," Brad murmured from the study doorway.

"Hardly conquering. Have a good nap?"

Brad scoffed as he walked in. "Fucking Person, spreading his lies. Reporter was a terrible influence on him."

"I find it comforting, knowing you're human and do require such mundane things as sleep, food—"

"Sex," Brad finished, completely straight but a hint of humor in the controlled line of his mouth.

"Mmm, I've heard rumors."

"It's okay, sir, you can admit they're legends."

"And swell your ego?"

"That's not the only thing."

Nate laughed aloud, once, and shook his head.

And realized he finally felt...settled. At ease. Home.

His smile faded. This is what had been missing earlier. This feeling, the one he found in Brad's presence.

But Brad was only here to do a job. Someday, hopefully soon, the threat would be resolved and Jackie could go back to her normal detail. And Brad could go back to his life.

Without Nate.

Nate's stomach seized up at that thought. Not just that Brad would be gone, occupying his previous position of oft-considered-but-never-contacted former platoon mate, but that Nate had gotten so used to him, had come to rely on him.

It wasn't unexpected. The same thing happened in Iraq. But this time was so much worse, knowing exactly what he felt instead of just figuring it out. Knowing exactly how lifeless things would seem when Brad was no longer here.

"Sir?" Brad asked, an implied 'are you all right?' in his voice.

"Sorry, my internal clock's FUBARed. Anything to report here?" Nate asked, all business.

Brad eyed him, careful. "All quiet."

"Glad to hear it. If that's all, I think I'll get some shut-eye."

"Yes, sir. Goodnight, sir." Brad hesitated a moment before leaving, half-lingering, but Nate purposefully shuffled papers on his desk, didn't invite him to stay.

He'd never shut Brad down before. If anything, he'd encouraged Brad's visits, indulged him. They were one of the few things he could look forward to. The few uncomplicated things he had left.

Turned out that was just folly, too.

***

Just like that, their easy rapport evaporated. No more nightly visits to Nate's study. No more wry smiles when they crossed paths. Their dynamic was perfectly correct: professional, impersonal, distant.

At times Brad would look like he wanted to say something, but Nate would blink and it'd be gone, once again hidden by the acclaimed Iceman façade.

Nate could reach out himself, but it was better this way. Easier. It'd be permanent eventually; they might as well start getting used to it.

If Nate missed it, that was just more weakness to excise.

***

Nate knocked as he entered the Residence, knowing he'd be welcome, but wanting to announce himself anyway.

Not that it mattered, what with Sam and Ainsley volleying back and forth as they did.

"It was Pinafore!" Sam insisted. He spotted Nate and waved him in to the sitting room where he was reading a brief while simultaneously arguing with Ainsley.

"It was Penzance!" Ainsley shot back, busy rustling in the bedroom.

"Nate will clear this up. Was 'Away, Away!' in Penzance or Pinafore?"

"I neither know nor care."

Sam shot him an unimpressed look, then called back to Ainsley. "It was Pinafore, all secret betrayals and vowing vengeance; we saw it at that theater in that place."

Ainsley walked out of the bedroom and turned to Nate. "Hello, Nate." Then, to Sam, with an irritated flick of her blond ponytail: "That was Penzance."

Sam considered. "That might have been Penzance."

"Finally, he sees the error of his ways. We'll make a Republican out of you yet."

"I still maintain that—"

"Nate, what brings you by?" Ainsley interrupted, cheerful.

Nate spotted his opportunity and knowing he might not get another anytime soon, he took it: "Bad news, I'm afraid. Justice Dreifort died."

Ainsley's face fell, all cheer gone. "What a terrible shame."

Sam frowned. "Was it a lightning strike?"

"Sam!"

"Heart attack," Nate answered.

Sam blinked in surprise. "I didn't think he had a heart."

"That's an awful thing to say!"

"But it was God calling him home, Ainsley. Doubtless to atone for his myriad sins against Him, his fellow citizens, basic human decency..."

"You just hate that he retired during a Republican administration, so the president could appoint another conservative in his place."

"Yes. And also his contempt for humanity."

Ainsley shook her head at him. "He was a good and decent man and a brilliant jurist, which I'll make special mention of in my eulogy."

Sam sat back at that thought. "You're not."

"Watch me."

"Damn, I'm gonna have to say nice things about him, aren't I?"

***

The funeral was a grand Washington affair, held at the National Cathedral, anyone who was anyone in attendance. A public spectacle of grief, if not of mourning.

Brad was part of the Secret Service team, augmenting the usual security given the large venue and crowd. His presence shook Nate, though he couldn't say why.

Sam and Ainsley's remarks were beautiful, just the right tone, no matter what Sam thought of the man himself. Dreifort had lived a full and happy life, had children and grandchildren, and even enjoyed his retirement from the court. His whole family was in attendance, sad, but celebrating a life lived. It was the kind of life everyone wanted.

Nate couldn't help but superimpose Kara's funeral, a small affair, comprised only of his family. Kara had been alone in this world, save for Nate and Jackie, and the funeral had been a sad tableau for that reason and so many others. It was the diametric opposite of this display, though perhaps with more feeling if only for the specter of a life cut short.

As the service broke and Nate shuffled out with the crowd, he suddenly found Brad by his side, his eyes shadowed. At Nate's glance, Brad leaned in. "Are you all right, sir?"

Nate wanted to fall into that concern. He wanted to lean on Brad, to let him wash away this unsettled feeling. To make it all okay.

Instead Nate looked away. "I'm fine." Short. Clipped. Bullshit.

Brad didn't say another word.

***

Nate spied Celia in his doorway and raised his head. "Are there more recent drawdown projections? The timetable seems unrealistic to me given the amount of equipment we're talking about."

"I'll check. Special Agent Colbert's here to see you," Celia said uncertainly.

Nate stood abruptly and walked the few long strides to his outer office, alarms ringing in his head. "Is everything all right?" Brad had never asked to see him during the work day, not once.

Brad looked surprised at Nate's appearance or maybe at Nate's worry. He straightened, professional mask firmly in place. "Yes, sir. I apologize for not making an appointment—"

Relief flooded through Nate; if there were a problem, Brad would get right to it. On its heels came a tiny shred of regret for the obvious distance that Brad kept between them. Still, Nate pushed past it. "No need. Come in." He gestured back to his office, then gave Celia the look that meant no interruptions. He shut the door as she picked up the phone, doubtless to call someone and ruin their whole day's schedule.

Which was far less important than anything Brad had to say. Nate turned back to him, gesturing to a chair. Brad didn't sit.

"What's up?" Nate asked.

"Sir, has the headmaster of the school been informed of tomorrow's excursion to the cemetery? Because, sir, the headmaster has been known to flip his shit and I would very much appreciate avoiding that."

"What visit to the cemetery?"

Brad went perfectly still. "The cemetery you and Jackie will visit tomorrow, which you know all about."

Nate narrowed his eyes. "Mark!" he called out.

***

Instead of the vaguely guilty look Mark had been wandering around with, he just looked confused at Nate's question. "It was on Lise's agenda, to be put on your schedule." Mark turned to Brad. "The headmaster is aware of it and shouldn't give your men trouble." Mark looked back at Nate, something pleading in his eyes. "It's all taken care of. I thought you'd be pleased." This isn't my fuck-up screamed from his entire body.

All throughout that Nate remained silent, consumed by the yawning gulf that had opened up in his gut.

Mark was right.

Nate—Nate had forgotten.

Every year he visited Kara's grave on the anniversary of her death. Every year he honored her memory, formally, in person. He wanted the reminder. He wanted her to be present.

He'd thought about her funeral at Dreifort's just a few short days ago. And still he'd fucking forgotten.

Nate couldn't even begin to parse the enormity of it, the churning guilt in his gut. He'd been so preoccupied with Afghanistan and Jackie and Brad...

It wasn't a betrayal. He knew that. It just felt like one. And worst of all, it wasn't even a deliberate act. A sin of omission, not commission, something internalized and unconscious...which was somehow so much worse.

Mark's rapid blinking reminded Nate that he was standing there, still stone-silent, both Brad and Mark watching him like they were waiting for the blast.

Nate nodded, short. "Thanks for taking care of that for me. I appreciate it."

Mark flickered through so many emotions it would've been comical in any other situation—disbelief, relief, a little bit of pride at finally doing something right, and on and on.

"Go on back to what you were doing. Sorry for the interruption," Nate said, gentler.

"Yes, sir." Mark hurried off like if he stuck around, Nate might take it all back.

When Nate looked over, Brad watched him with a concerned line between his eyes. He was still far too good at reading Nate, but if he wasn't going to speak up, Nate wasn't about to offer anything.

"Is that what you needed, Brad?"

Brad's chin dipped sharply—affirmative. "Thank you, sir." He turned and headed for the door, but paused before he opened it, looking back.

Nate raised his chin and just dared him.

Brad's lips firmed, but he nodded again and walked out.

***

"You're being an idiot," Kara informed him, skin pressed all along his, white sheets mussed around them. "A monumental idiot. They should build a monument to your idiocy."

"They can put it across from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," Brad mused from Nate's lower back, breath hot against his skin.

"It'd look awkward," Nate gasped out.

"Because that's the salient point," Brad murmured, slowly pulling away.

Kara grasped Nate's chin and made him hold her look. "You think you know how it all ends, but you know better than anyone: no OPLAN survives first contact with the enemy. You're playing this all wrong."

"It's not about that," Nate shot back, gathering his concentration, trying to ignore Brad's presence looming large behind him.

Kara's intensity morphed into something soothing, like a balm to a wound. "You want to let go. And, Nate, you can. You've internalized others' expectations, but you know what I think about that."

"Fuck everybody else," Brad murmured.

Nate could feel Brad behind him, not touching now, body heat bleeding between them. Waiting.

"C'mon, Nate, just let go," Kara said, her hand somehow twined in the leather cord around his neck—hadn't been there a second ago—using it to pull Nate to her mouth. "It'll be so good; just let go," she whispered against his lips.

***

Nate slammed awake, chest tight with something clawing and unnamable. He sucked in a ragged breath, then another, trying to get hold of himself.

He could. He could.

***

Nate looked at himself in the mirror—his red eyes, circles beneath them, skin paler than usual. The leather cord peeked out from under his shirt. Nate pulled it out so it rested on top.

Their wedding bands gleamed at him, tied securely in place. The sight of them brought the ever-present melancholy to the surface, regret for what could never be. He carried that feeling with him, always, but the physical reminder suddenly seemed too much.

Experimentally, he picked at the knot that tied the cord. It'd gone stiff from all the years of wear, but Nate kept at it, needing to see—

The knot gave way with another tug and suddenly Nate held the cord in his hand, could finally look at it directly rather than in a mirror. Their rings almost looked small in his palm. Small, but somehow right.

He closed them in his fist. His reflection stared back at him, collarbones unadorned for the first time in a long time. It felt right.

***

Nate spent another moment at Kara's grave, surprised at the lack of sting. The pain was still there, but somewhere in the last year it had been tempered, reformed into something bittersweet rather than the gaping hole he was used to. He didn't know how to feel about that. He wasn't glad, could never be, but...accepting, maybe. Maybe this was what healing felt like, when all he'd known was a wound so fresh it took the wind out of him.

He ghosted a smile at Kara's grave, took one last look, and turned on his heel. Jackie and Brad were waiting by the limo, Jackie looking up at Brad with a persuasive look in place. Brad's stern expression was utterly incongruous with the sight of Mr. Penguin secured in his pocket.

Nate smiled as he approached. He could just hear Jackie asking, "Did you know my mommy?" She observed Brad with big, curious eyes.

"I certainly did. She was brilliant, beautiful, and she made your daddy smile, just like you," he murmured, raising his eyes to nod at Nate's arrival.

"Come on, sweetheart. Time to go." Jackie scrambled into the car, leaving Nate to look at Brad.

He nodded, once, acknowledging what Brad had said. Brad nodded back. No words needed.

After another moment, Nate broke the silence: "I'll go with you to drop Jackie off at school. My detail can take me to the White House from there."

Brad raised an eyebrow. "You don't need more time?"

Nate looked at him, sad, but resigned. "It's just another day, Brad."

***

"Schedule a meeting with the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and give him a heads up about the topic," Nate told Mark as he walked from the entrance to his office. "I'm sure he'll want to pull in some of his—" he trailed off at the sight of Celia perched delicately in his outer office. She leaped to standing when she spotted him.

"We have a visitor?" Nate guessed.

"Secretary Simon. I told him you were in the Economic Policy briefing, but he didn't want me to bother you, said he'd wait," she explained.

"It's fine," Nate said with a forced smile. He made sure to close his office door as he entered, reaching out for a handshake.

"Ken, good to see you."

"Mr. Vice President."

"I take it you have some news for me?"

"Unofficial news, yes, sir. The selection board elected not to move forward with that candidate we discussed."

Something unclenched in Nate's chest, relief like breaking the water's surface after just this side of too long.

"I'm...surprised to hear that," Nate said, choosing his words carefully. Even more so than usual.

Ken gave him a nonplussed look. "Are you, sir?"

"I trust in the Corps' wisdom, of course," Nate said smoothly.

Ken smiled something small and perhaps ironic. "As do we all, sir. Not that it's gotten us very far, huh?"

"We are all servants to a greater master," Nate said obliquely.

For a brief moment Ken looked like he was swallowing glass, but he wiped away the expression soon enough. "Sadly true. Well, that's it for me. Thought you'd want to know."

"I appreciate the visit. Have a good one, Mr. Secretary."

"I'll try." He shook Nate's hand and left, leaving the door open in his wake.

Nate stared at the door for a moment, contemplating that turn of events.

Then he laughed, a mixture of relief and regret. All that worry for naught. It turned out, the world still spun without Nate's interference.

Mark poked his head in and looked at him quizzically. "Something funny, Mr. Vice President?"

"Don't mind me. I'm just recognizing the extent of my unimportance. Your Superfluous Excellency, indeed."

***

As Nate headed down to the kitchen, Walt's familiar voice caught his attention: "I swear, he's pissier than adult diapers these days."

"Fuckin' Brad, stayin' frosty, all right," Ray shot back, tone still somehow sympathetic.

"Why's he gotta take it out on me?" Walt asked, plaintive.

Ray nodded in greeting as Nate entered the kitchen, then shrugged at Walt. "'Cause he can't take it out on his real target." Nate could feel Ray's eyes on his back.

So he turned and met Ray's look. "You have something to say, Person?"

"Following your orders made Brad miserable enough back in the day. Do we really need a command performance?"

"You're out of line, Corporal."

Ray faltered at that, a flash of the real concern underneath slipping through. "It's just—are you really telling me this is the best way? Doesn't Brad deserve better?"

Nate shook his head, regret clinging to him. "Sometimes, things are the way they are for a reason."

"And sometimes people make excuses to keep them that way." Ray shook his head, once, disappointment clear to see. "I didn't think you were one of them."

Really, there was nothing Nate could say to that. So he said nothing at all.

***

Nate was barely into his first cup of Sunday coffee when he noticed a marked increase in activity among his detail, more radio chatter than usual, given the frequency of agents' tilting their heads and listening to their earpieces. It was subtle, but Nate hadn't been trained in observation for nothing.

It wasn't much of a surprise when Brad showed up. The pleased gleam in his eyes said it wasn't dire news, so Nate simply nodded at his appearance and welcomed him with a short, "Brad."

"Sir," Brad replied, similarly to-the-point. "There's a woman that you stay with when you go to Afghanistan. You mentioned her in some talk."

"Yes," Nate answered simply.

Brad quirked an eyebrow.

Nate stared right back. "She's a friend; it's nothing scandalous."

"Apparently her uncle disagrees. He believes you've defiled his niece, making her unmarriageable, so killing your daughter is appropriate vengeance."

Nate swallowed against the sudden rush of adrenaline, heart rate speeding up, muscles tensing. "Is she all right?"

"Jackie's fine."

Of course Jackie was fine; she was upstairs getting ready for Sunday Mass. "No, my friend in Afghanistan," Nate clarified. "Has someone checked on her?"

Brad studied him for a beat, like he was surprised. That was bullshit. Brad saw everything.

"I've got some guys on it. But more to the point, given that the uncle lives outside the US, without the ability to actually carry out an attack, that bumps him down to a Category II threat. His name goes on a list and he'll be tracked and flagged if he ever tries to enter the country."

Nate blinked. "That's it?" That couldn't possibly be it. Months of worry, of caution, of an extra-special detail didn't just culminate in...that.

Brad nodded, once. "That's it. It's good news, sir. It's not a US-based covert cell planning kidnapping and mayhem; it's a guy on the other side of the world shooting his mouth off to a cousin, who decided to mail some letters. It could be much worse."

"So you've completed your mission," Nate said carefully, his stomach dropping out like it did before a jump. Yes, he'd worried and wanted the threat to be taken out—of course he did—but the reality of Brad disappearing again...he thought he'd have more time.

"As if you'd expect anything less."

"No. I'd never expect anything less from you," Nate said, an odd timbre to his voice.

Brad cocked his head at it, too, eyeing Nate, but refraining from comment. "With your permission, sir, I'd like to say goodbye to Jackie in person." A hint of uncertainty hid in that request; seeing it had Nate nodding instinctively.

"Granted. I know she'd appreciate that." Nate himself appreciated it...but could hardly say so.

"Thank you, sir. I'll make a point of it before she leaves for Mass."

***

Brad held Jackie, dipping her to and fro as he roamed the hallway, making airplane noises. Nate was suddenly back in Iraq, a lifetime ago, watching a half-naked Brad do the same thing in a field of tall grass. He could practically taste the sudden rush of want that had streaked through him then.

Amazing how little things changed. Right down to Brad being poised to walk out of Nate's life. Again.

Jackie's delighted giggles brought Nate back to the present. Brad met Nate's gaze. He immediately set Jackie on her own feet, despite her protests.

"You'll come visit, right?" Jackie asked Brad, all childlike hope.

"Maybe," Brad said, neutral, glancing up at Nate again.

"Brad, can I speak to you for a moment?" Nate asked evenly.

Something flickered in Brad's eyes, though he inclined his head.

Nate turned to Jackie, who looked on the verge of mutiny. "Jackie, Grandma's waiting in the car to take you to Mass. If you're good, she might take you for ice cream."

Jackie visibly brightened, then gave Brad a rushed hug. "Bye, Brad!" she said as she turned and hurried away. "Bye, Daddy!" she called behind her, almost like an afterthought.

Nate felt slightly guilty about bribing his child, but then Brad moved toward him, some kind of regretful expression in place. Nate smoothly stepped aside, gesturing Brad into the study, then followed and shut the door behind him. When he faced Brad, something wary had settled in his eyes.

"Sir, I realize that wasn't entirely professional—"

Nate didn't think about it, he just acted. One moment Brad was saying something apologetic-sounding and the next Nate grabbed his lapels and crushed their mouths together.

As a silencing technique it was surprisingly effective.

Brad breathed out, sharply, his mouth opening, surprised by the kissing or the manhandling or both. Otherwise, he stayed perfectly still, hardly pushing Nate back, but not responding either.

Realizing that, Nate quickly released him.

Brad blinked at him, Iceman mask perfectly in place. "Was there anything else you needed to speak to me about, sir?" Brad asked, emotionless.

Fuck.

"No, Special Agent Colbert."

Brad nodded and stepped around him. He opened the door without looking back.

Nate's gut churned as every secret fear played out before his eyes—

"Eric, it's very important that no one comes in this door without permission. Even Eagle himself," Brad said, just outside the door.

Nate's pulse pounding loud in his ears obscured Eric's response.

Brad returned and shut the door softly. Three long strides had him back in Nate's space and this time he was the one being manhandled, Brad's mouth on his, strong hands pulling him close.

Nate's brain blanked out, too much stimulation at once: Brad's tongue in his mouth, fingers slipping under his sweater to find skin, his cologne going to Nate's head every time he breathed in, all of it making the room spin. Or maybe it was the reality of getting what he'd imagined so many times, but never actually thought—

Still wrapped up in each other, they stumbled back, knocking into one of the sofas, causing a flare of pain that Nate paid no mind. But Brad looked down, his bruised lips quirking, like he was amused at something. I did that, Nate thought, awed, as Brad looked back up at him, blue eyes bright with humor. And happiness.

"I think a change of scenery is in order," Brad rumbled, even his voice sending a shiver down Nate's spine.

Nate simply nodded and leaned in for his mouth again. Brad could work out the rest.

He did, kissing Nate as he towed them through the side door, through the anteroom, heading for his bedroom. It was...more than Nate had thought possible, too much maybe, so he didn't think, simply concentrated on kissing Brad like he never thought he'd be able to.

In all his dreams, they'd never done this part. Brad had just shown up in his bed, like he'd always been there. When Brad shrugged off his jacket, Nate suddenly froze in realization: he got to have this. Brad, naked in his bed, kissing him, wanting him. From the expression on his face, just as much as Nate wanted.

Brad caught his hesitation, of course, so he froze, too, studying Nate like he didn't want to spook him. "All right, sir?"

In response Nate removed Brad's SIG Sauer P229 from its holster and set it on the side table. Then he looked straight in Brad's eyes.

"Anything else that might hurt me?"

Brad paused, swallowing hard. "Just me."

Nate studied him, seeing the desperate hope that was all over his face now that he'd stopped hiding it. "I doubt that."

Nate watched as the meaning of his words landed, the soft heat blooming in Brad's eyes. He held the look for a moment, then shook himself and glanced away, smiling like he couldn't believe any of this, like he was trying to hide his happiness because it might get snatched away. Nate wanted to smooth out that smile, to say no, don't because he couldn't stand any lingering doubt...but he knew it'd just make Brad retreat more, so he let it lie. For now.

Brad crouched down and removed a safety holster from his ankle. A knife appeared from somewhere. He set both aside.

Nate smirked. "No ninja stars?"

"Those are for special occasions."

Nate breathed out a laugh, but it got caught in his throat as Brad swiftly unbuttoned his shirt, finally baring skin. It was—well, of course it had to happen, Nate wanted it, but he still wasn't prepared for the reality.

It was entirely possible Nate was operating in a state of shock. How had they gotten here again? Then he realized: it didn't fucking matter. They were here and all Nate wanted was Brad sprawled out underneath him, immediately.

Nate planted a hand in the middle of Brad's chest and pushed, sending him sprawling back on the bed. He climbed after, running his hands up Brad's body as he went, every muscle defined. The Brad in his memory had a lanky, wiry strength, consequence of a lack of food while invading a desert country. This Brad was solid, strikingly so. Merging the two was an exercise in surmounting cognitive dissonance.

"What, are you looking to outdo Rudy now?" Nate asked without thinking.

Brad smiled at the compliment, then turned it around on him: "You trying to say something there, sir? Should I go find him for you?"

"You'll do, Sergeant," Nate said, matter-of-fact. "You'll do," he repeated, softer, probably far too earnest.

Brad hauled him up, fusing their mouths together again. When he broke away, it was to pant hotly into Nate's mouth. "That's Master Sergeant to you, Captain."

Brad pulled him into another kiss and then they were writhing against each other as they shoved their way out of clothes. Nate tugged Brad's shirt all the way off, tossing it somewhere. Brad stripped off Nate's sweater, hands going to work on Nate's belt.

Nate's attention got caught by the new tattoo on Brad's chest, the eagle, globe, and anchor with his service dates printed underneath, right over Brad's heart. He ran careful fingers over it, imagining the sting as it was inked indelibly into Brad's skin, though it couldn't compare to living it, he well knew. Or leaving it.

"Observe everything, admire nothing," Brad intoned, fingers stilling.

Nate looked up at that. "That was a reminder to myself as much as everyone else." He paused, openly staring at Brad: mouth red, pupils dilated, the picture of temptation. "I did far too much admiring back then."

Brad hauled Nate up at that revelation, fusing their mouths together as he flipped them. He sprawled out over Nate, lining up their bodies, even though they were still both wearing pants. Nate was already hard, as was Brad. They were in this together as in all things.

Everything clicked, then, finding a rhythm by instinct. Nate realized he could get off like this, thrusting into Brad's hip and he sucked on his tongue. Because dry-humping was totally respectable for two grown men. Nate couldn't bring himself to give a single fuck, not with Brad thrusting against him and making little noises into Nate's mouth, like he might just be seeing God.

Brad bit Nate's lip and suddenly pulled himself back.

"What?" Nate panted, leaning up.

Brad laughed breathlessly, holding himself back. "I am not fucking coming in my pants."

Nate laughed, too, a little hysterical, but went to work on his jeans as Brad did the same to his suit pants. He had just enough brain cells to navigate belt and buckle and button and zipper and Jesus fucking Christ he was never going to get out of these clothes—

"Good enough," Brad said shortly, moving back in on Nate, kissing him again. He shifted and got a hand around both their cocks, one long squeeze that had Nate groaning into his mouth, gripping Brad's arm as pleasure swept over him, nothing he could control.

Brad had the best ideas.

Nate wrapped a hand around Brad's, matching his rhythm, sucking on Brad's tongue in a promise he would absolutely keep just as soon as his head wasn't fogged over by lust. He broke away gasping when it got to be too much.

Nate stared into Brad's eyes as they jerked themselves off in tandem, feeling it everywhere, every nerve ending lit up in a chorus of fucking finally. Nate sucked in a breath, watching as Brad did the same—

Breathing in sync. Moving in sync. It was effortless, even in this, and something about that struck Nate somewhere low. He made a helpless noise, leaning in to kiss Brad again as his orgasm crashed over him, wiping his mind clear.

"Fuck," Brad breathed into his mouth, but Nate was still aware enough to hear how it was suffused with helpless want. Then he was coming, too, both their hands tightening as they rocked into it, heat spilling between them.

For a moment they stayed like that, panting into each other's mouths, touching everywhere. But it couldn't last. Brad roused himself and tipped over, landing by Nate's side with a long exhale. He reached out and settled a hand on Nate's chest, his heart still beating double-time underneath.

After another few moments, Nate laughed weakly. "That was pathetic."

Brad made an amused noise in his throat. "I'm okay with it."

Nate shifted a little closer to his warmth. "Liar. At least I have an excuse."

"On the contrary. In solidarity, I've been abstaining."

Nate snorted. "Bullshit."

Brad blinked muzzily at him, happiness clinging to the edge of his smile, the crinkle of his eyes. "I donated my whore fund to the RNC. Seemed appropriate, shifting from one group of whores to another."

"Now I know you're fucking with me. You'd never give money to politicians."

"Ye of little faith," Brad mused. A comfortable silence settled between them, just breathing and enjoying each other's presence. Something Nate never thought he'd get to do.

"Fourteen years," Nate said into the morning quiet. Apropos of nothing...but it was everything.

He could feel Brad's eyes on him at that, so he looked over. It was startling, once again, to find Brad actually here, in his bed, his face soft.

Brad reached out and ran a knuckle down Nate's cheek, something flaring in his eyes. "When I heard you'd be our platoon commander, I asked around about you. Poke, Rudy, some others who'd dealt with you."

Nate nodded. Of course he did.

"Poke said you were squared away. Rudy said you had a warrior's spirit," Brad mimicked Rudy on the last, bringing a smile to Nate's face, even as his heart squeezed. It satisfied that warm place inside him reserved solely for the platoon. "Hearing that, I knew we'd be okay. I'd have to put you through your paces, of course—"

"You fucker," Nate said fondly, thinking back on Brad's subtle challenges, on how it'd kept him up at night, thinking the Iceman didn't respect him.

Brad smirked. Then he grew serious. "But I knew we'd gotten lucky. And then I walked into that shitshow of an office you shared with the other officers to meet you and you looked up at me and it was like the start of some two-bit twink film. Everything faded to the background," Brad said, intense, impressing on him the gravity of the moment.

"I thought you were sizing me up," Nate murmured, thrown. His brain scrambled to catch up, to recontextualize their entire history.

"I wanted you from the jump," Brad said, so baldly honest and open it almost hurt. "It only got worse the longer we worked together. So yeah, fourteen years, but don't ever think you were alone in it."

Nate swallowed, feeling the truth of that. He didn't quite know how to process it, the idea that all this time, Brad was on the exact same page...

Unbidden, an uncomfortable thought floated to the surface.

"What you told me—about why you left the Corps."

Brad smiled at that, breaking the seriousness of the moment. "Mmm, someone has an ego."

Nate flushed. "It's not—"

Brad's amused rumble interrupted him as he shifted even closer. This was Brad being playful. He nipped at Nate's chest, then soothed the mark with his thumb.

Playful like a lion toying with his food.

"Everything I said was true. If seeing where you were headed inclined me toward the Service, well. At least you'd have someone competent at your six."

Nate swallowed thickly, his throat starting to hurt at that.

Brad clocked it. He rested his chin on Nate's chest, idly stroking here and there. "What are you overthinking now?"

Nate bit his lip, thoughts tumbling over one another, analyzing all the angles. Trying to put into words something even he hadn't worked out yet. "I wouldn't want you to have left the Corps for me, to come to the Secret Service, when I'm not—" He stopped, just what he'd been feeling attaining coherence in his own mind.

Brad ran a finger between his eyebrows, smoothing out the frown line there. "When you're not sure about the White House," he said, soft.

Nate swallowed and met his eyes. "Maybe," he said, equally soft.

"I wouldn't have left the Corps if it had anything left for me," Brad said, certainty in his voice. "Regardless of your considerable charms." He brushed his fingers over Nate's mouth.

Nate searched his face for a moment. Brad was telling the truth—of course he was, he was nothing if not a man of his convictions—but now...

"I need to tell Sam and Ainsley."

"You need to tell Sam and Ainsley why I left the Corps?"

Nate was sure his expression said don't joke. Brad regarded him with not a little bit of humor, like yeah, that'll happen.

"You might want to wait to do something really gay before you announce your gayness," Brad said, dry.

"You're covered in my come."

Brad dismissed that with an elegant gesture. "Kid stuff. Might want to hold off until you see how you like my dick up your ass."

"I've no doubt, Brad, that you'll show me a good time," he deadpanned. "And—kid stuff? What'd you get up to as a kid?"

"Military school." Like that said it all and Nate would've called him on it, but Brad sobered, looking at him intently. "You could be president. In a no-bullshit, just-the-facts-ma'am kind of way. You're practically the heir apparent."

"I don't know if I want it."

"Which is exactly why you should get it. It's the no-shred-of-doubt, power-hungry imbeciles that fuck everything up." He shook his head and gestured vaguely between them. "But this—you and I both know this fucks your shot at the Oval Office. It just does."

"That might be a consideration if I were sure, determined, but..." Brad was already shaking his head and Nate could practically see him resolving to sacrifice this for the good of the country or some other bullshit.

Nate tried another tack. "It's just—It's politics, Brad. I like policy. I want to do policy. But this. It's all trappings and meetings and listening to idiots starting every sentence with, 'what you should really remember is...' when they're only in the room 'cause they bankrolled half of Iowa."

Brad watched him intently. At least he had his attention.

"You'd rather be on the other side of the table? Everyone knows it's better to be the buyer than the seller."

"That depends entirely on what you're buying."

Brad swallowed and looked down. "If you ever changed your mind—"

"About what? The presidency? Or you?"

"—you couldn't take it back. Once your gay affair is out there, it's out there."

"You're suggesting, what? We stop before we even start?"

"No," Brad said quickly, apparently very sure of that. It assuaged something in Nate to know that Brad wanted this just as badly as he did.

"Okay, good. So then what? Hide?"

Brad shrugged. "Maybe better than closing the door entirely. I wouldn't want you to have...regrets."

"Over a crapshoot, at best. And in fifty years someone can write a book about me, exposing the deviant homosexual affair that I hid from the world, all so that I'd be properly positioned. Christ. I'm not ashamed. I'm not experimenting. Fourteen years, Brad. I am in this."

Brad paused, silent for a long moment, clearly thinking through the scenarios. Finally, he looked up, a hint of a sly smile in place. "Please. Like anyone will even remember your name in fifty years."

Nate carded his fingers through Brad's hair. "I appreciate your concern for my career, but some things are more important. You're more important than something that might happen someday."

Brad studied him for a moment longer, then finally acquiesced. "It's your career, sir. Your call." That warmed something inside Nate, Brad's trust. It always had.

So Nate simply nodded and forged ahead. "Here's how it'll go: I resign and retreat to a private life. Teaching, running some company, whatever. After a few months, once the furor has died down, you quietly move in with me—"

"Jesus." Brad shifted back, looking at him like he'd never seen him before.

Nate held on, keeping him close. "—and we go from there."

"You go all in, don't you?"

"I'm not playing, Brad." Nate stared at him, making sure he really got it. "I'm not wasting any more time. Unless you don't want it."

"I do," he said instantly, voice shaken, but sure. "I want it all."

Nate smiled and brought their foreheads together, speaking against Brad's mouth: "Then the rest of the world can go fuck itself. We're gonna have it all."

***

"Absolutely not," Sam stated emphatically.

Nate protested. "Sir—"

"Resignation is out of the question." Sam turned toward the side door, yelling out, "Josh!"

Nate pivoted to the reasonable party in the room. "Mrs. Seaborn—"

"Ainsley. And Nate, I wish you'd have told me you were open to this. I've been keeping the Log Cabin Republicans at bay with a whip and a chair."

Nate flushed. "Mrs. Seaborn—"

Josh knocked as he popped his head in. "You need me, Mr. President?" Sam waved him in.

"Josh, Nate's been having an affair with a Secret Service agent."

Josh blinked. Then he shrugged. "Mazel tov?" he offered.

"Technically, that's not exactly true," Nate put in, despite knowing that he'd lost control of the situation, Sam clearly taking umbrage on his behalf. It wasn't that Nate didn't appreciate the sentiment; it just wasn't reasonable.

Sam continued on like he hadn't spoken: "Who's a man. And now Nate's trying to resign."

"Is he a Democrat?" Josh asked.

"Really not," Nate said.

"Well, you can't win 'em all."

Ainsley jumped in then: "Does he have political aspirations?"

"Not even a little bit."

Ainsley brightened. "Excellent! He can be my vice president."

"Oh, God," Sam said. "That won't bring the Rapture or anything."

"I think we've wandered from the salient point," Nate offered. "Which is that I won't allow myself to become a liability to this administration. Sir, I appreciate your support, but it's better for you if I resign."

"That's crap. You're an integral part of this team and I won't allow you to think anything less."

Sam clearly wasn't hearing him, so Nate tried again: "Sir—"

"Nate, do you hate being vice president?" Sam asked, all his attention focused squarely on Nate.

"No," Nate conceded.

"Do you think you're doing good for the people of this country?"

"I do."

"Aside from this ridiculous talk about being a liability, is there any reason you shouldn't continue to serve?"

Since it was put up or shut up time: "I don't know if I want your job."

"And thank goodness for that. I don't need a challenge from my own party."

Nate simply shook his head. "You should be grooming someone to take over for you."

Sam waved that away. "The future can take care of itself. We have things to do in the present. I know some part of you thinks I asked you to join the ticket solely for the optics, but it's simply not true. It's never been true. I picked you because I trust that you want what's best for the American people. Period. You've got a good heart, Nate; this town needs more of that. I want you to stay, even knowing all the political risks. Will you?"

As he had so many times before, Nate marveled at Sam. He was direct, compassionate, suffering no bullshit, but maintaining the hint of idealism that convinced people a better world was still possible. He was the man Nate voted for, and would happily do so again, the kind of politician he'd thought didn't exist anymore.

"Yes, sir," Nate said. Of course he would.

Sam nodded, looking to Ainsley and then Josh.

"It'll totally derail our agenda, let's be clear about that," Josh said.

"Josh," Sam protested, like he was personally offended.

Josh held up a hand. "That said, and not to be crass about it, but it's also probably the only way we get an out LGBT candidate anywhere near the White House any time soon."

"Fuck, you're gonna turn me into a poster child," Nate muttered, rubbing his hand over his forehead, trying to stem the headache he could feel coming on.

Josh studied him, clearly thinking this through. "Are we gonna be fighting rumors of orgies? Pictures?"

Nate straightened, knowing it had to be asked, but still resenting his integrity being brought into question. "No."

"Well, we know the boyfriends in college were discreet. Who's this agent? He's not on your detail, is he?" Josh pressed.

"Of course not."

"It's Brad, isn't it?" Ainsley said, like she'd finally slotted in the last piece of a puzzle that'd been nagging her.

Nate looked over sharply, surprised. He didn't think he was that transparent. Then again, she had tremendous insight, one of the reasons Sam kept her so closely involved.

"Brad?" Sam asked, clearly searching his memory.

"The one who compared me to a thug," Ainsley supplied.

Sam broke out into a smile. "Oh, right. I like Brad."

Josh snorted, then shook his head. "It's up to you, Sam. It's your presidency, your legacy."

Sam looked from Josh to Ainsley and back to Nate, a mischievous grin forming. "Then I guess we better prepare for what's next."

***

With a long breath, Nate closed his office door behind him, shutting out the rest of the world.

Brad stood up, the spring light filtering in from the windows hitting him just so. Nate's fingers itched to touch, but the little furrow between Brad's eyebrows stopped him. He was worried.

"Sitrep?" Brad asked, cautious.

"I forgot to include one thing in my analysis: the president's an idealist."

Brad relaxed, a hint of a smile edging onto his lips. "He won't accept your resignation, will he?"

"He took great umbrage." Nate stepped forward, drawn inexorably toward Brad, as he always had been. Only now he could follow through on it, move close, slide his hands under Brad's jacket and feel him breathe. "I agreed to stay," he said, soft.

Brad really did smile then. "Such an officer. Can't even manage to resign without help."

Nate heard the acceptance in it, that constant willingness to roll with the situation. He shook his head, regret tugging at him. "I liked the idea of living with you."

Brad pressed two fingers to Nate's jaw, the little touch stealing his breath. "That can still happen."

Nate watched Brad carefully, hardly letting himself believe it was a possibility. "It'll be a scandal. An old-fashioned, no-shit, DC clusterfuck. Press following you everywhere. Harassing your family and friends. The entire media machine running roughshod over your reputation, integrity, humanity."

Brad shrugged, supremely unconcerned. "Sounds like a party."

"Brad."

Brad stared into his eyes, every ounce of determination plain to see. "I followed you through Iraq in an unarmored Humvee held together by hope and duct tape. I think I can handle it."

The reality of Brad going all in thudded through Nate, heat suffusing every part of him. He swallowed against his too-tight throat.

"No, Sergeant. I'm pretty sure I followed you."

The slow smile that spread across Brad's face made him ache. "Call it a team effort, then," Brad murmured, leaning close. "Whatever's next, we face it together."

"Together," Nate agreed against Brad's mouth, falling into the kiss. Together, they could face anything. And they would.

***

Fin. Feedback is adored.