Title: A Better Teacher Than Duty
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the world is not.
Rating: T; slash
Spoilers: Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
Summary: A professional was allowed to regret losing one of his primary charges. He wasn't supposed to feel like he'd swallowed ground glass when his boss told him the other couldn't stand to look at him anymore. 8200 words.
Notes: Because I couldn't get over the facts that: (1) The President apparently banished Agent Banning from his presence for eighteen months because it hurt too much to look at him; (2) and despite that, the Prez' first reaction when the bad guys said he was in the house was faith in him: "you SHOULD be worried". Not to mention, (3) Banning was not wearing a wedding ring at the beginning of the film. Secret Service details wholly made up from movieverse depictions and Wiki. Title from an Einstein quote (about love).
Secret Service Agent Mike Banning paused in the middle of tightening his tie as a pair of arms wrapped around him from behind. He looked up to meet his wife's eyes over his shoulder in the mirror and smiled absently at her, feeling the warmth of her pressed all along his back.
"Hey, there," he said.
"Hey," Leah replied, smiling faintly in return.
There was a bittersweet quality to the smile, though, that he'd been noticing more and more often recently. Mike freely admitted that he'd been turning into a recluse before the terrorist attack on the White House, seldom in the mood for socializing with Leah's friends from the hospital, but the distance between them now had a different flavor to it, one he wasn't sure how to interpret.
He moved his hands out of the way as she reached up to finish knotting the tie herself, then cupped his hands over hers, holding her gaze in the reflective glass. "Something wrong?"
He'd thought, at first, that it might be because he'd almost died without even telling her he was in danger, throwing himself into a situation that wasn't officially his responsibility anymore – but she'd never confronted him about it. Not when he'd approached her ambulance crew covered in blood, and not when she'd taken care of him in more intimate ways at home. Later, he'd wondered if it might be the fact that he'd never consulted her about rejoining the PPD, given the added risk and the increased stress it put on their schedules – but when he'd tried to apologize, properly this time, for missing another of her work parties, she'd told him calmly that she'd never expected him to go.
She wasn't the passive aggressive type, so he didn't think she was deliberately trying to spite him. But her non-answers hadn't given him much clue about how to fix things. Hell, he'd even finally wrangled a few days to take her to the beach for that long-belated honeymoon, and it hadn't seemed to make any lasting dent in her newfound melancholy.
She shook her head, but didn't pull away. "It's been six months now, hasn't it?" she said, thoughtfully.
"Yeah." Another Christmas had come and – barely – gone, brighter in some ways than the last but still a painful day for everyone in the President's orbit. Mike might be finally back where he felt he belonged, but the day still marked the second anniversary of the First Lady's tragic death, an event no one who'd been there much felt like celebrating. And on top of that, all the new faces on the Detail were a reminder of all the lost friends he wouldn't get to 'gift' in tacky white elephant exchanges or fleece over Thursday night rounds of poker, ever again.
"Yeah." Leah tried on a smile again, even more lopsided this time, then slowly slid her hands out from under his and down the flanks of his dress shirt. "I told myself I'd give it that long before I made a decision."
Mike swallowed, his stomach sinking at the phrasing. It was starting to sound like just the type of conversation he'd been trying to avoid.
"Give what that long, honey?" he asked, reaching for the ceramic jewelry dish on the dresser to retrieve his wedding ring.
She snagged his right hand again before he could slide the ring onto his left, snaring the gold band in the joined net of their fingers. "I think you know," she said, determinedly.
"Leah–" He shook his head, completely at a loss. What did she want from him? "Tell me."
"Mike," she sighed, then turned her face sideways, resting her cheek against his shoulder. "Don't give me that look. It just isn't going to cut it anymore."
He carefully untangled himself from her grip then, shifting to put his back to the mirror. He let her keep hold of the one hand as he turned to face her, then rested the other on top of it, keeping her close as he searched her face with a worried frown. "What look? Leah – I'm not a mind reader. What's going on?"
"You really don't know, do you?" she chuckled, sadly. "You'd tell yourself everything was fine, and keep going just the way we are."
"And what's wrong with the way we are?" he asked, frown deepening. A quick glance toward the clock told him that the time he'd set aside for breakfast before his shift was ticking away – but he doubted drawing her attention to the hour would win him any points. And realistically, it wasn't like waiting 'til he got home or cluttering up their weekend with the conversation would miraculously make it go better.
She chuckled ruefully, shaking her head as she flexed her hand in his grip. "Oh, nothing. And everything. I mean, I knew when I married you that you'd left half your soul behind in the White House – but that's the way these things go, right? It's not like I leave my job at the door every day, either. But I thought we could balance it out; I thought we understood each other."
"Did I do something wrong?" he finally asked straight out. "I know I was having some trouble last year, but I thought since I returned to the Detail–"
"Yeah. Since you returned." She chuckled again, shaking her head. "That's half the problem, right there. I know people say they're married to their jobs, but you really are. I never realized the only reason you still had any of your soul left to give me was that he'd sent you away. And now that you're back – there's just not enough left over to share. I know you're trying, Mike; but you're never really here even when you're with me anymore."
"What?" he pulled back from her, letting her hand drop. "Leah – I know we weren't married yet when I was on the Detail before, but you saw what it was like. And you said you were okay with the demands it made of me. What's changed? I know the hours have gotten rougher again, but–"
She sighed, frustrated. "It's not the hours, Mike. Or the even the job itself, if I'm being honest. It's just ... remember back at the beginning? Before the car went off the bridge and your face was all over the news the first time? I asked you how well you knew them. And you said – on protective details like this, you're not there to have a personal relationship, you're not there to get caught up in their lives. You're there to protect them. And I took you at your word."
That gave him pause for a second, as the shape of her objection finally started to come clear. Yeah, he knew what he'd said; he'd told himself that often enough after Margaret Asher's funeral, when he'd been rotated back to the Treasury building. A typical protection job only lasted four to five years; he'd have left the White House soon enough regardless. The fact that he'd shown the President's son all the nooks and crannies of the White House, the fact that he'd boxed with the man himself and took liberties with his first name when technically off duty – those were supposed to be exceptions, not the rule.
A professional was allowed to regret losing one of his primary charges. He wasn't supposed to feel like he'd swallowed ground glass when his boss told him the other couldn't stand to look at him anymore.
He'd tied the knot with Leah fairly soon after the funerals, it was true. But that didn't mean he'd thought of her as some kind of substitute for his non-relationship with the Ashers. Or that returning to the PPD meant his reasons for marrying her had been wiped away.
She was a warm light to come home to. Someone to care for, someone to care for him: one of a very few personal connections in his life. And he loved her. That hadn't changed, just because he'd regained his confidence and satisfaction in his job; the fact that he valued his place on the Detail didn't mean he valued her any less. He wished he'd seen that she was having a problem with it sooner.
It wasn't just about Ben – President Asher – and he should have made sure she knew that. It was about his duty, and Connor's eagerness to learn how to protect himself, and Director Jacobs' approval. About the way Turnbull nodded respectfully now instead of scowling at him, and the grateful clasp of Secretary McMillan's hand after the last defense meeting. Heaven help him, he was at least as much symbol now as soldier; he'd seen the looks on the faces of the new agents introduced to him lately, including some who'd actually retired before his time and come back to help fill in the losses. He wouldn't be surprised if Jacobs asked him to work recruiting, after his tour was up.
Because it would end, eventually; that was the way these things worked. Fame didn't entirely exempt him from the rules.
"Okay, so maybe the lines have blurred a little. Hard for them not to, after everything that's happened. But it's only for a couple more years, Leah. Just until the end of his term – and then it'll all go back to normal."
"Normal?" she replied tartly. "If what we had before is normal, then I'm not so sure I want it back."
Apparently he still hadn't deciphered her point. "Was it really so bad?" he asked her, wearily. He hadn't been the happiest man on earth, it was true – but he'd thought they were good together, at least. He'd thought she was happy. To find out otherwise – stung.
She stared at him for a long moment, then sighed. "Look ... I didn't want to pick a fight with you today. I thought ... well, I don't know what I was thinking."
"No wonder I'm clueless, then. The mind of a woman is a maze to me, even on the best of days."
Leah rolled her eyes, allowing her expression to soften at the old, worn joke. "It's not that things were bad. Or that they're bad now. I'm – I'm glad you're happy, really. But it means you weren't really happy then – and that it's not because of me now. I'm not blind, Mike. Think about it, all right? Look at that man today, when you're standing there behind him like a guardian statue, and tell me you'll really be able to make a clean break again when he leaves office. Because I can deal with coming in second to your job. But what I won't deal with is being the other woman."
Was that what this was all about? She was jealous? Of the President? "Leah..."
She lifted up a hand to stop him, shaking her head again. "Just think about it," she said. Then she leaned up, pressing a quick, chaste kiss to his lips before walking out of the bedroom.
"...And try not to end up in my emergency room today, okay?"
Mike did think about it, all the way through his shift. Through briefings and meetings and administrative duties; through ordering the rest of the Detail around, and taking his own turns standing post. He dropped the ring in his pocket rather than putting it on, carefully not analyzing the impulse; but a strange sense of absence kept drawing his thumb to rub against that finger all day long, constantly bringing Leah's words back to the front of his mind.
And the more he thought about it ... the more he had to concede that she wasn't exactly wrong. He did love her. But she wasn't – and never really had been – the focus of his life. It had only seemed that way for a while, when he'd been sitting behind a desk instead of standing guard at the President's shoulder. He'd needed her strength, then, and the distraction she provided from his guilt and grief. And she'd shared that strength with him, among other things, with a generous heart. But taking that particular need out of the equation seemed to have unbalanced their entire relationship.
He wasn't sure how he was supposed to fix that. He was who he was; and all of Jacobs' jokes about therapy aside, he felt more centered since the attack than he had in ... well, years. Since the accident, for sure; maybe even since he'd left the Rangers. He wanted Leah to be happy, and if his being happy precluded her happiness ... then what? Did only one of them get to be happy at a time?
...And maybe that had been her point. What the hell did he think was going to happen when President Asher's second term was up, anyway?
The question nagged at him past lunch and long into the afternoon, until the man's schedule opened up for a casual hour of exercise, and he morphed into Ben again via the sartorial expedient of a sleeveless shirt and boxing gloves.
Mike tried to let the worries go and lose himself in the physicality of the moment like usual, trusting the rest of the Detail to keep the watch while the boundaries that usually came with suits and earpieces and guns seeped away with the sweat from their pores. But even that innocent degree of interaction suddenly tripped his observational instincts, resonating with his wife's questions.
By the end of the round even Ben had noticed his distraction, and a frown pulled at his mouth as Mike stripped off his gloves. "Everything all right, Mike?" he asked. "You seem a little off today."
Mike gave him a weary grin, shaking his head. "Yeah – everything's fine. Just a lot on my mind."
Ben frowned at him as he started to help the other man remove his own gloves – then reached out the minute a hand was free, almost in an echo of Leah's earlier grab. "I can see that," he said, snagging Mike's left hand and eyeing his naked ring finger. "Did something happen?"
A flush of embarrassment went through Mike for forgetting about the ring – followed on its heels by a flash of something else as Ben's grip lingered. A touch like that should never, had never set him off so viscerally before; between the boxing and all the manhandling Mike subjected the President to under the course of his duties – both unexpected and routine – he'd had his hands all over the man at one point or another. But he'd never spent so much time analyzing every second of their interactions either, and in that moment, it filled his entire body with tingling heat, radiating outward from the place where their hands touched. He wanted Ben, the desire no less strong for its suddenness; wanted to trap his President against the ropes and taste the sweat trickling down his throat. Mike was mortified – but also very aroused. Where the hell had that come from?
He gave an awkward laugh, then tugged his hand free, waving off the question as he went to work at Ben's other glove. "It's nothing, just – forgot to put on my ring today."
Forgot. Right. It was a weak excuse, and Ben's skeptical expression said he knew it, too. "You sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure," Mike replied, a reassuring smile freezing on his face while he subtly turned to shield his groin from view. He could only hope none of the other agents had noticed his reaction.
It wasn't like that between them; and it never could be like that. Even if he was that kind of guy, the President sure as hell wasn't.
He couldn't be. Not with a guy, especially not with one of his agents, especially not the married agent formerly known for losing the First Lady. Not even with his reelection out of the way, not if he wanted to get anything done during the rest of his term. Ben was a Republican, for Christ's sake; the party's stance was well known. Mike knew all that. He knew the rules. And every Secret Service agent knew what would happen the next time any one of their number brought down a scandal on public time. Especially one as well known as Mike Banning.
Under the lenses of cameras, and microphones, and the eyes of how many other staffers and agents at all times? He respected Ben far too much to risk letting his wayward thoughts create a blot on the man's career. Still less did he intend to impugn the Service. He pulled his thoughts back into rigid line, and forced the smile to become more natural under Ben's – no, the President's – assessing gaze.
"Okay; if you say so," the other man finally said, with a shrug and a grin of his own. Then he ducked under the ropes, heading off toward a shower before getting ready for his next meeting.
Mike headed for a shower of his own. And – when certain thoughts resurged again halfway through – quietly admitted to himself that he was fucked.
"Okay," he admitted to Leah that evening over dinner. "So, I might have been a little more ... distracted ... lately than I realized. I'm sorry, babe."
She looked up from her plate to give him a long, assessing gaze. Then she smiled again, that same sad broken smile that stabbed him to the quick, and looked down, loose blond hair sweeping forward to shield her face. "So what are you going to do about it?" she asked, quietly.
"What do you want me to do about it?" he shrugged, helplessly. "I get that there's a choice you're asking me to make, here. But it's not like I would – I mean – even if I didn't love you, even if he wasn't still half in love with his wife, there's no way it would ever go anywhere. And with all the eyes on me, if I ask to resign now..." He winced. "It'll only be for a couple more years."
She raised her eyebrows at that and pressed onward, picking at her food with her fork. "Say there was a future with him. Would you want that more than you want one with me?"
Mike stared at her, swallowing hard. "What kind of question is that? I'm not – I've never been – and Ben isn't, either. It doesn't matter what I might want; what matters is that I married you."
Whatever private activities he may or may not have quietly engaged in during his years with Special Forces, he'd always publicly identified as one hundred percent heterosexual, and he'd never had any complaints on that score. More than that – he hadn't wanted to be that sort of poster boy for the post-DADT service, even before Leah had rendered the question moot. And it wasn't his place to speculate about President Asher's rank on the Kinsey scale either, no matter what Mike might or might not have belatedly noticed regarding the number of times Ben's gaze sought him out in any given day.
"That's not a no," she observed skeptically, finally looking up again. "And are you sure about that? I've heard you call his name in your sleep, you know."
Her expression made her opinion of that trespass clear, and Mike flushed in embarrassment for the second time that day. No wonder she was upset. Maybe he should have talked about the nightmares with her before – but he'd wanted to deal with them on his own. So much for male pride. The dreams that had disturbed him lately – and apparently her, too – were as far from that sort of dream as one could get, but she probably wouldn't believe that now.
"Leah..." he sighed, laying down his own fork. "I know my duty. And I'll do it, to the best of my ability; I can't do anything else. I don't know what more I can tell you. I don't know what else you want me to say."
"That's not a no, either," she said, then laughed suddenly, a sharp, pained sound. "Mike – I love you too, you know? That's why I had to say something. Can you understand that?"
"I just wish it was enough for you," he said, frustrated. "Tell me what I need to do to fix this."
"I'm sorry," she shook her head. "I really am. But I can't take a couple more years of this. I just can't."
Mike stared at his plate a moment longer – then dropped his napkin over his plate and got up, heading into the kitchen for a beer. If they were seriously about to have this conversation, he had a feeling he'd need a little liquid anaesthetic by the time they were through.
He did put the ring back on the next day, but it was mostly for show. It didn't make any difference to Leah's decision, in the end. He was officially a bachelor again before Valentine's Day, and everyone else seemed to know the papers had been filed about five minutes before he did.
Most of the other agents ribbed him a bit about the low-key divorce, but ultimately shrugged it off; the statistics were, after all, notoriously dismal for their job. More than one marriage had been derailed by the nonstandard workweeks, unusual hours, extended trips away from town, and other pressures; add in his wife's position at a busy local hospital, and everyone agreed it was better for both of them that they'd figured it out before they'd complicated things further by having kids.
The President said all the expected things, too, though his gaze lingered on Mike even more often than usual. Especially after Mike started cutting back on the boxing and personal conversations as much as he could get away with without deliberately causing offense.
Unfortunately, that seemed to only make the nightmares worse; he'd started dreaming of Ben's grip slipping out of his on that bridge, or of Kang Yeonsak's bullet piercing Ben through the heart instead of the side, at least a couple of times a week. Of being too late to save him; or feeling a neck snap in the crook of his arm only to watch in horror as the intruder's face changed to reveal Ben's. Mike held the President's life in his hands in his dreams, over and over again – and over and over again, he failed him.
Even so, Mike almost preferred those dreams to the others: the ones that had started cropping up since Leah's intervention, as though instigated by the power of suggestion. Of one of those boxing matches suddenly getting a lot more naked, or sneaking into the Oval Office for purposes of accessing something much more personal to the President than his sat phone and laptop. Of sharing the niche in the walls of the Lincoln Bedroom with someone a lot taller and more amorous than Connor. It was as though letting himself think about it even once had swung the door of possibility open in his subconscious, and no amount of telling himself what an idiot he was would wedge it closed again.
It was hell on his equilibrium and his temper. But it did do a lot for his focus, so at least he had that going for him. He'd get decent recommendations for whatever job he took after the Secret Service – if he ever stopped stewing in the present long enough to figure out what the future might hold.
The first morning he woke alone in his new, empty apartment, he was reminded of that detective who'd shut down a domestic terrorist plot a decade before. Mike couldn't remember his name, but it hadn't been the guy's first ninety seconds of fame, and he'd been remarkably blasé about it. Some reporter had asked him how being a hero had changed his life. And his response had been pretty memorable:
"You know what you get for being a hero? Nothin'. You get shot at. You get a little pat on the back, blah, blah, blah, attaboy. You get divorced. Your wife can't remember your last name. You get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me, nobody wants to be a hero."
Mike hadn't exactly been new to taking fire, even then. But he understood that cop's wry bitterness a hell of a lot better now than he had at the time.
The first anniversary of the July 5th attack dawned with a minimum of fanfare. There were no last minute meetings with foreign ministers, no domestic events of significance; the President's schedule had been cleared apart from a commemorative ceremony and press conference mid-day, and security had been doubled at every key government location starting on the 3rd. The White House itself had been restored to pristine condition, and temporarily barred to visitors; the repairs to the Washington Monument had finished just in time for the event. The only lingering marks of the invasion were in the minds of the staff, who were very aware of how many of their brethren had lost their lives that day.
Chief among them was Mike, who restlessly paced the halls as the hours passed, revisiting all the places where he'd spilled blood – his own and others' – during his one man war with the rogue North Koreans.
All of the bullet holes had been filled in. The destroyed upper floors of the left wing had been rebuilt, and the burned walls and demolished furniture had been replaced. PEOC procedures had been revamped to ensure that no outsider would ever be allowed into the President's bunker again, and the Cerberus system had finally been replaced with something less inherently vulnerable.
The installation team had made Mike nervous the entire time they'd been on-premise, but he'd more than agreed with the necessity. As helpful as it had been that the code to the safe in the Oval Office hadn't changed during the months Mike was gone, and as touched as he'd been that Agent Roma had never deleted his authorization from the local system, the sort of delinquent attention to electronic security that had made that – and, incidentally, Kang's entire plan of attack – feasible could not be allowed to persist.
At least they hadn't been that lackadaisical with Forbes' access codes. Thank the Lord for small mercies.
He forced himself to stop fidgeting long enough to stand through the press conference; that was one thing he absolutely refused to delegate. Apart from another full out frontal attack, it was the only point of access for intruders in the day's schedule, and Mike would never forgive himself if something else happened to Ben – to the President – while he'd turned the watch over to someone else.
He really was going to have to get that straightened out in his head eventually. Leah'd been right about that much: Look at that man, when you're standing there behind him like a guardian statue, and tell me you're really going to be able to make a clean break when he leaves office.
Mike looked, cataloguing the shape of Ben's shoulders under his suit, the passionate conviction in his voice, the belief in the faces of the people looking back at him ... and knew he'd do what he had to do, regardless of how he felt. But the necessity of it left a bitter taste on the back of his tongue.
All the same, though, he couldn't wish things had been different. Because being who and what he was had saved Ben's life, twice. And if anyone but Benjamin Asher had taken the office, the country would have been a much poorer place, to say nothing of his own life. No; he'd never been under the illusion that life was fair. He was just going to have to keep playing the hand he'd been dealt, and get over it.
The President retired to the private quarters again after the press conference, and Mike finally felt settled enough to relax a little, loosening his tie and shedding his suit jacket in the agents' break room. The news ticker was still reporting on the President's brief speech, and there'd been no more than the expected counter-posturing from the North Koreans; intel suggested they were much more focused on internal matters of late. And no other threat had cropped up to capitalize on the moment. Clear skies, good news, and all his charges safe: it was turning out to be a pretty decent day, in Mike's book.
He tipped his coffee cup to the agents changing shifts, then headed back out for a more leisurely check of the Executive Residence.
He ran into the President again on the second floor, also down to pin-striped shirt sleeves now that he'd slipped the public eye for the day. The man had shed his tie somewhere, and was rolling up his cuffs as he walked down the hall, pausing to peer in each door he passed. "Hey, Mike," he said, nodding absently as he passed the stair landing. "Have you seen Connor since we left the press room?"
Mike wrinkled his brow, thinking about it; but no, he'd left Connor in the care of a couple of the younger agents. They'd been planning some kind of video game marathon, and he'd promised to drop in later in the evening. "No. Not in the last hour or so. Should I send someone to track him down?"
The President frowned, glancing down to check the time on his grandfather's watch. "I don't think that's necessary. But it's nearly seven o'clock, and Agent Hauser said he'd given him the slip about ten minutes ago. I was wondering if maybe..." His voice trailed off, and he gave Mike a concerned look.
"Ah," Mike nodded. The year before, the South Korean prime minister had arrived at seven o'clock – and less than fifteen minutes later, Connor had been trapped alone in a building full of the dead and the dying. He was a teenager now and a strong kid – he'd managed to stay out of sight of Kang's patrols for five hours before Mike found him – but he'd been through a lot, and it still hadn't been all that long since his mother's death. "You think he's gone into the walls again?"
Ben gave him a wry smile. "I don't blame him, but – I don't think he should be alone in there, either. Would you mind going in after him? I think he'd take the intrusion better, coming from you."
"Of course, sir," Mike nodded to him, then turned and headed for the Lincoln Bedroom.
A heavy sigh sounded behind him, followed by a murmured aside between the President and one of the other agents in the hall, but Mike paid that no mind. He moved to the panel that held the entrance to the hidden passage, shifted it aside, and climbed through into the narrow, dusty space surrounding the building's inner frame. There, a few scars still remained from the attack; the bedroom walls had been rebuilt and repainted like new, but in the secret passageways, out of sight, there'd been no pressing need to patch up each and every hole. Mike traced a couple of the gouges and divots at chest-height with callused finger tips, vividly recalling the terror and adrenaline of the moment when he'd clutched the President's son to him and run amid a hail of gunfire, and grimaced.
Today, though, Connor's favorite hiding place was empty, much to his surprise. Mike paused, frowning into the tucked-in cubby. He'd made a deal with the kid that he was allowed his secret niches just so long as the Secret Service agents were kept informed of their locations and allowed to verify their security, as a delicate balancing act between ensuring the kid's safety and allowing him a degree of the privacy any growing young man needed. If Connor had ditched his detail, and wasn't in any of the places he knew his father or Mike would look to find him, it might be time to renegotiate that arrangement.
"Connor?" he called quietly, looking down toward the next access point to the halls.
Then he heard a scraping sound behind him, and the muted light pouring into the passageway from the Lincoln Bedroom access suddenly cut off. "Connor?" he called again.
"No, just me," a much wearier-sounding voice replied.
"Mr. President?" Mike straightened up instantly, turning to face his Commander in Chief in surprise.
Ben raised his eyebrows at him, unimpressed, as he wove his way down the narrow passage to Mike's side. "It's Ben, not Mr. President, or sir. Not in here; and don't give me that look, it's not like there's anyone around to set an example for. You never used to be that rigid about it before, anyway."
That last sentence hadn't quite been a question, but Mike could hear a hint of offense in it. He should have expected a direct confrontation sooner or later; it wasn't like the President was any less observant than Leah. He'd just hoped he wouldn't have to have that conversation.
"I didn't have a dedicated Twitter feed following my every move before, either," he offered with a sheepish shrug. He'd been rather thoroughly educated about that, following his now-famous failure to recognize the term 'hashtag' during the hurried effort to shut down Cerberus. And that was only one facet of the added publicity he'd faced since the attack; even if he wanted to work in a field office again after he left the PPD, he'd never be able to take another undercover role – like Horrigan, back in the day. Mike was still of two minds on whether or not that was a good thing.
"Sorry, sir," he added. Then winced again. "Ben."
Ben studied him a minute longer in the dim light, then crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the stone surface of the original wall. "Yeah, that's true enough," he mused, nodding slowly. "But I'd be a little more inclined to believe it if you'd started acting standoffish right after the attack, rather than waiting several months to spring it on me."
Mike had never been good at dissembling to people; or, well, it wasn't so much that he couldn't as that he rarely saw the point. Historically, he'd more often been on the sharp end of an interrogation than the reverse – and he'd never been all that great at the softer stuff anyway. Just ask Leah.
He glanced over Ben's shoulder toward the closed entryway, deciding it was safer to deflect than to answer. "I suppose Connor's in his room, then? And I hope Archer knows where you are, or the rest of the Detail will be boiling over like a kicked anthill about now." Especially that day, of all days.
Ben rolled his eyes. "Yeah, he's the one that insisted I talk to you, in fact. Connor, not Agent Archer – though Agents Archer and Miller are well aware that I'm in here. They're outside the doors to the passage, to make sure no one stumbles in on us while we're talking. You've trained some pretty observant people, Mike. As uncomfortable as that can be sometimes, I do appreciate it."
Mike's eyebrows flew up in alarm; this conversation was starting to sound suspiciously well-planned, not to mention better publicized than he'd prefer. "So why exactly are you in here? If I might ask."
Ben paused for a moment, studying his expression, then sighed and reached out to rub a thumb over one of the ballistic pocks in the stone. "You know, I don't think I ever told you," he began. "You must've been pretty busy those first few hours after Kang took the White House, but we were even more isolated down in that bunker. His guys were mostly focused on the computers, on controlling us, on talking to the people at the Pentagon; they didn't care about keeping us informed of the details of the assault. They had the hostages all zip-tied to the railing in a row, and they killed Minister Lee right in front of us; they were busy intimidating us, and threatening Turnbull. So for hours, all I could think about was stalling until Roma found Connor, hoping he would protect my son and get him out.
"But then they pulled up that security footage – and Forbes said your name. And in that moment..."
Ben shook his head, expression darkening with emotion, and took a deep breath. Mike couldn't look away; he'd heard the story of those hours before, of course, in the distilled version Ben and Secretary McMillan had given the press, but not – not in detail. Not like this.
"Forbes told Kang he wasn't worried. And my knee-jerk reaction was – you should be." The corner of the President's mouth turned up, and he repeated the phrase again in deeply satisfied tones. "You should be. I think that was the moment I started to believe I'd walk out of that room again, and that Connor would be waiting for me when I did. I knew you'd do everything in your power to make sure that happened."
Eighteen months without seeing him, and that had still been his reaction? Mike started in surprise, feeling the obligation of that faith press down like a weight on his shoulders. "It wasn't enough then," he said hoarsely, thrown back once more to that moment in the car when he'd made the choice to cut Ben's belt instead of hers.
Ben shook his head, gently. "It wasn't an act of nature this time; it was terrorists. Your skills were a little better tailored for the job. And, for the record..." He ran a hand over the back of his head, shifting his weight as though he wanted to pace. "It wasn't... That wasn't why I recommended they remove you from the Detail. I knew you'd done everything you possibly could."
Mike scrubbed a hand over his face, looking down at his shoes. "That's what Jacobs told me. But..."
"You blamed yourself, so why shouldn't I?" Ben chuckled, his voice as rough as Mike's. "No; it was a little more complicated than that. But I didn't feel up to talking about it at the time. And it wasn't the kind of thing that lent itself to a letter."
It was Mike's turn to study Ben's face, surprised at that raw comment; taken aback by the unusual vulnerability he was showing – and not just in that moment, in the whole conversation. As though, caught in the space between walls and between worlds, the usual rules and habits that separated them had fallen away. He'd seen the man with his guard down before, but not to the extent of explaining himself to Mike, of all people. He'd grown used to thinking of his thing with Ben as one-sided; was it possible that...?
No. That kind of thinking was a slippery slope he wasn't about to set foot on. The price of failure wouldn't be worth the chance of success. "At the time?" he prompted.
Ben nodded. "Yeah. That's – kind of what I really wanted to talk to you about." He gestured vaguely at the wall beside him. "The thing is ... when the wreck happened. It all went by so fast; I only remember it in bits and pieces. Opening the box with the watch. Handing Maggie her present. The flash of her smile. Then we were spinning across the bridge – and in the blink of an eye, she was gone."
He swallowed, absently encircling his right wrist with his other hand where Mike had grabbed him that night. "After that, all I could see was the car sinking through the ice. I don't know how long it was before I started noticing the rest of the world again, but when it did, I looked over at you, and a stray thought went through my mind. Kind of becoming a habit, I guess – but this one, it took me over a year to forgive myself for. I know it wasn't fair to you; I knew it even then. But I couldn't..." he trailed off.
He glanced to the side, gaze lost in memory as he continued. "I was still in shock. A few seconds before, Diaz had been grinning at us in the mirror while Maggie wiped her lipstick off my mouth again – and then six of my agents and my wife went into that river right in front of my eyes. But I could still feel your hand on my arm. And the first thing I thought was – thank God Mike rode with Connor."
Mike hissed in a breath, remembering the strain in his shoulders and forearms from holding on, the biting chill of the weather, and the despair that he hadn't been able to save the First Lady, too. And a similar desperate gratitude he'd cursed himself for later: that Ben had been seated on the side of the car he could reach, rather than Margaret Asher.
"Yeah," Ben chuckled. "I mean, of course anyone would be glad that a ... a friend had survived. If you'd been in the passenger seat like you usually were, instead of in Connor's car, you'd have died that day, too. But right then, staring through the hole in the railing, it felt like a betrayal to Maggie to be grateful for anything. So every time I saw you ... I felt that guilt again and that gratitude all tangled up with her loss, and I couldn't deal with it. I'm sorry; I should have apologized, before."
No, he shouldn't have, any more than Mike should technically have been his friend to begin with ... but the warmth of the statement lodged in Mike's chest like an ember regardless, upsetting his carefully constructed equilibrium again. "I probably wouldn't have listened, then. I felt like I deserved it," he admitted. "I failed you. I failed her."
"You did anything anyone humanly could," Ben chided him. "So when you turned up again last year ... like a bad penny..." he added with a wry acknowledging glance, "there was no question in my mind about whether you still deserved the job. You didn't need to redeem yourself; though you certainly went above and beyond on that score."
"It was my honor," Mike replied, warmly. His respect for the man, for the friend, for the office all aside – he'd been serving his country since he was a teenager. He honestly believed in his duty, in putting himself in harm's way to protect others.
To his surprise, Ben winced at his response. "Actually ... that's what I've been afraid of. You know, when I told Lynne I wanted you back on the Detail, I didn't exactly ask if you wanted to come back. And once it was all in motion, it wasn't like it would have been easy for you to back out."
"You're ... wait." Mike straightened up, focus sharpening abruptly. "You think I don't want to be here?"
"What else am I supposed to think?" Ben shrugged. "The way you've been pulling back since your divorce ... I know it's a little late, but if the only reason you stayed is because you thought it was your duty to serve out my term, I'll find some way to get you out of it without your ending up chasing counterfeiters in Alaska, or whatever they use for a shit job in Treasury these days. Maybe you could even still win her back; I know how much you loved her."
Mike's response to that was instant, and as visceral as that first aware touch, all those months ago.
"Not as much as I..." he blurted, then cut himself off, swallowing hard.
"As much as...?" Ben repeated, then broke off with a harsh intake of breath. "Mike...? Are you...?"
Mike turned his back to the President, crossing his arms over his chest. "The last thing I ever wanted is to give you cause to doubt me," he said, as calmly as he could manage. "Maybe that would be for the best."
There was a brief, tense moment of silence; Mike waited, head bowed, for the axe to fall. Then he heard the shuffling of feet behind him – and a hand came down on his shoulder.
He tensed under the warm press of Ben's fingers, then reluctantly relaxed, following the tug of that hand to turn and face his Commander in Chief again.
"Maybe you should let me be the judge of what's best," Ben said softly, gaze burning with an emotion Mike had only seen him direct toward his wife before. His heart lurched again, feeling ridiculously breakable despite all his physical strength and psychological training.
"Ben..." he said, the word drawn out of him like pulling a tooth.
Something fierce flashed through Ben's expression in response, and he stepped forward, pressing into Mike's personal space. The two inches of height and several pounds of muscle Mike had on the President didn't seem to matter; he let himself be pushed back against the other wall of the hidden niche, resisting only so far as to shift his hands to Ben's shoulders. The little flag pin in Ben's lapel bit incongruously against his palm, blurring reality for a moment as though he'd fallen into one of his dreams; but no dream he'd ever had had been so ... texturally real.
Ben tasted of whiskey, and the mint gum he chewed sometimes when a cigarette craving hit him; of heat, and wonder, and impossibility. Mike felt as though he'd been struck by lightning; as though he wanted to bare his throat to the man and go down on his knees in front of him, something he'd never experienced in any intimate encounter before, male or female.
This was his commander. His protectee. His friend ... and the leader of the free world. He'd known he was fucked months ago, but he hadn't known how fucked until that moment, when Ben worked his way past all Mike's dutiful objections to show him exactly what he'd been denying them both.
By the time Ben pulled back, they were both desperately hard, and Ben looked considerably disheveled, clothing askew and covered in dusty fingerprints. Mike forced himself not to reach out to pull him back; and Ben gulped air, visibly piecing his own equilibrium back together.
"So," the President said after a minute, wiping a hand over his mouth and leaning back against the opposite wall. "That ... wasn't exactly what I was expecting." He shook his head, gaze bright.
"You're surprised?" Mike chuckled weakly, then sobered. "I never thought..."
"Yeah, well, I've never advertised, either," Ben shrugged, self-consciously. "Not in my family. Not in this party, for all my lofty words about leading by example. It might be unexceptional by the time Connor's generation is in office, but it was never a real possibility for me, not if I was going to reach all my goals."
Mike nodded. For all Ben called himself an old man, they were only two years apart in age; both part of the so-called Generation Change, not those who would inherit the results of their efforts. DADT hadn't even been implemented yet when he'd joined up.
"I used to joke with Maggie sometimes about our convergent taste in men," Ben continued, "but she was the only..." He smiled faintly, fingering the widower's ring he still wore.
Mike cleared his throat, tactfully. "So. What now?"
Ben took a deep breath, then let it out again. "Well – it's only a couple more years," he said, unconsciously repeating Mike's mantra – then changed it up, a determined light in his eyes. "Then maybe I can work on setting a different kind of example. In the meantime, though ... how many corners in this museum of a house don't have any cameras or mikes?"
"You can't be serious," Mike retorted, even as the answer came to mind: quite a few of them, actually.
"Like I said. Maybe you should let me be the judge of that," Ben replied.
By the time they finally emerged from the passage, another fifteen minutes had passed; and the agent posted there carefully averted his eyes from the President's state of dress as they exited the Lincoln Bedroom.
"No luck finding Connor?" the agent asked, studiously unworried, and Mike favored him with a wry smile.
"Not yet," he said, then brushed at the dust marring one elbow. "Damn dirty in there; I'll wash up, then check his room again, see if he doubled back on us."
"Yes, sir," Archer replied blandly. Good man.
Ben threw a warm glance over his shoulder. "When you do find him, tell him I'd like to talk when he has a moment, all right?" he said, then left, headed for his own private washroom.
"Will do, sir," Mike smirked after him.
It was going to be a long couple of years. And it wouldn't magically be easy, even after they left the world's center stage. But whatever fallout they might face ... Leah had been right again: shared happiness was worth the cost.
Mike spared a fond thought for his ex-wife, hoping she'd found someone better able to give that to her, too. Then he shook his head and headed for the stairs.