|**A few comments: First, Caldwell lives past the end of the movie because I say so. :) Second, I want to thank Sue from the Android's Dungeon for giving me Caldwell's first name, as there wasn't one given in the movie. On that note, if you haven't read Sue's fanfic, I strongly recommend giving it a look. Finally, I've done less research for this story than I have for any story in a long time -- everything about the White House and the Secret Service is either from movies or made up. I was having too much fun to go searching the web for information on two subjects that, together, might get me into trouble, times being what they are.**|
|He came closer, whipped at the end of the tether like a grisly kite.
Grace Marshall watched from the safety of Liberty 24's jump ramp, her arms wrapped tightly around her daughter as the giant winch draw Jim steadily closer to safety. She knew it was her husband at the end of that tether at first only because she could not bear to think that it wasn't. Air Force One had plowed into the sea a few seconds ago. If it wasn't Jim on that tether....
Jim didn't flail his arms, or reach too soon for the men who waited to catch him. Something was wrong. Something about the shape of him, an ink spot against the blinding light, looked wrong.
It wasn't until he was close enough to be dashed against the plane by the whipping wind that she realized he was not alone on that tether. That he didn't reach out because he couldn't. Couldn't risk taking even one hand from the body he desperately clutched.
They got him on board somehow, without his assistance. One of the airmen almost went out the back as he made a grab for the president's leg.
And then Jim was inside, lowered to the deck as the rear hatch closed against the impossible wind, airmen swarming around him. Grace forced her arms to release their hold on her daughter.
She gave Alice's shoulder a squeeze and left her huddled in a blanket in the care of an airman.
"Let go, sir," one of the parajumpers was saying as she approached. "You've gotta let go of him, sir."
Jim's eyes were squeezed tightly shut, and if he knew he was safe, he didn't show it. Grace recognized the shock of pale hair tucked against her husband's neck with a distant surprise. Major Caldwell was not attached to the tether, and Jim's arms were clamped so tightly about him that the combined strength of three airmen had failed to loosen them.
She waved them back and knelt. Grace's hand brushed the major's wheaten hair before coming to rest on her husband's cheek. "Jim."
His eyes opened at her coaxing tone and he looked at her with the wild, frantic eyes of a man waking from a nightmare.
"Let him go. Let the medic work on him." She bent her head over her husband's. "Let him go, Jim."
Slowly, his arms loosened. The airmen bustled back in and rolled the major's limp body off Jim. Grace caught a glimpse of the man's slack face and the liberal brick red of his shirt. In a moment, they'd lain him on the other end of the bay, and the medic was bending over him with bloody hands.
"Jim...." Grace gingerly touched his bloodsoaked shirt.
"His," Jim said, and his eyes closed on weary pain. "It's all his. Grace, he--" His voice broke.
She wrapped her arms around him, heartened by the strength of his return embrace. He tucked his head down against her like a child. Over the top of his tousled hair, she watched the medic work over the major where he lay next to Shep, just another man who'd taken a bullet for the president.
How many men had lost their lives that day? How many had willingly made the ultimate sacrifice to protect Jim? She tried to imagine what her husband must feel. Awe, certainly, and maybe pride, that so many would willingly give up their lives. But horror most of all, that they died for him.
"Dad!" Alice tore herself from the hands of the airman and scrambled to join them.
The three of them embraced and held tight, a family spared.
And by the time they released each other, every one of them was smeared
with Ryan Caldwell's blood.
The first awakening was fear. He hurt, hurt badly, and was so terrifyingly weak he couldn't lift even a finger. Breathing was a struggle, each attempt increasing the pain in his chest until he wished he could just... stop.
The thrum of an engine pounded through his body, and he knew they were still in the air. How much time had he lost? How long before Air Force One's last engine failed and she went down? He had to get the president off the plane.
Caldwell forced his eyes open. The strange man bent over him jumped. "Jesus! You should be dead!"
Caldwell struggled to think. There couldn't be an unfamiliar face on the plane. Not now. Unless... One of those parajumpers? But none were left -- Gibs had shot the last.
The sound that came out of Caldwell's throat was little better than a croak.
"It's okay, Major," the parajumper rushed to say. "You're safe."
Caldwell struggled to sit up. "The president." He managed to lift only his head and right shoulder. The left was nailed to the floor with a searing spike.
"Sir, it's all right. It's all right, sir." The parajumper was trying to hold him down. God, he was in league with Gibs. While Caldwell lay helpless, the traitor was after Marshall. Could even now be turning that Secret Service-issue gun on his own president.
Caldwell couldn't lift his left arm. He got his right hand on the parajumper's throat. "Where's Marshall?" The man shrugged him off with horrifying ease, and Caldwell struggled once more to sit up.
"Sir!" Another voice, at a little distance, protesting.
Then a second one, close and getting closer. "Lie down, Major."
He knew that voice. The president's head replaced the parajumper's, his hand on Caldwell's shoulder pushing him gently down. Caldwell stilled, almost crying with relief.
"We're safe now, Major. We're all safe. Lie down and let them take care of you."
Marshall's hand was very warm. The heat of it spread out from Caldwell's shoulde, pushing the pain before it. Breathing didn't get any easier, but Caldwell didn't care anymore. He lay back into a cloud of soft batting, his eyes slipping shut of their own accord.
"Yes, sir," he heard himself mumble.
Warm fingers touched his face and brushed back his hair, and he wanted to open his eyes again and see who it was. By then, it was too late.
Blackness swallowed him whole.
When he woke next, he was aware it wasn't for the first time, that this was merely the latest in a string of brief moments of consciousness. Few of them made any sense.
The bed was soft, and for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, Caldwell did not feel the submuscular drone of an engine. He pried his eyes open and lay looking for a long time at an expanse of white before finally identifying it as a ceiling. A hospital ceiling, from the antiseptic smell and the faintly-heard PA system.
"With us again?" The voice was feminine, vaguely familiar.
Caldwell turned his head through slow treacle to look at the dark-haired woman who sat at his bedside. He blinked, his eyes slow about focusing. She was a pleasant-looking woman. Her smile made her beautiful. Caldwell had no doubt he should know her.
He didn't let it bother him that he didn't. He lay still and was content just looking at her. It would come back to him, in time. He knew he'd been shot, though he couldn't for the moment think why. His chest hurt, an ache so deep and dull he knew he was drugged to the gills. The fact that it hurt despite the drugs frightened him, making him aware of every labored breath. His left arm was crossed over his chest, and someone had piled a half-ton of bricks on it. A tentative attempt to shift his arm convinced him that it was either strapped in place or there was something very badly wrong.
"Are you thirsty?" she asked when he swallowed. He grimaced, and shifted his head in a tiny nod. "It's the breathing tube," she said calmly as she rose and reached for a cup at his bedside. "They only just removed it this morning." She held the straw to his lips. "They said your throat might be a bit sore." He tired after a few sips. She set the cup aside and used a towel to wipe away the trickle of water that had slipped from the corner of his mouth. "I suspect that's an understatement." Her smile was brilliant.
Caldwell blinked again. He tried for a smile. She looked charmed, so he must have succeeded. His mind flailed wildly, trying to identify her. He didn't have any family. And surely he'd remember a friend like her.
She smiled again, tenderly this time, and he knew there was no woman in his life who should look at him like this. "You're a little confused, I think."
He managed a small nod.
"Do you know who I am?" She took his left hand as if she'd done it many times while he lay there. The feeling of her fingers on his was muffled. Perhaps his hand was bandaged. He didn't have the strength to lift his head to see. His fingers curled around hers with the ease of unconscious habit.
He shook his head, the faintest of side to side movements.
"Don't worry about it, Ryan. They've got you so drugged up, it's no wonder." She smiled again. "You don't mind if I call you Ryan, do you? After all we've been through, it seems ridiculous to fall back on formality."
A twinge of relief and one of worry. She didn't really know him. It was okay that he didn't know her. Except it sounded as if something... extreme had happened -- of course it had, or he wouldn't be in the hospital -- so he really ought to know who she was. He remembered that she'd asked him a question, and gently shook his head again. She could call him anything she wanted. He had a feeling she had the right.
Her lips quirked. "You haven't by any chance forgotten how to speak?"
"No," he said tentatively. His voice was hoarse, and it hurt to talk.
"That's good." The pressure of her fingers on his increased a little. "I'm Grace Marshall, Major Caldwell. Ryan. My husband is--"
"The president!" He struggled to push up on his good arm, breath catching painfully in his chest. She put a hand on his shoulder and, under that gentle pressure, he subsided. Her fingers were warm on his bare skin. Not as warm, he thought, as the president's, and wondered how he knew.
"Jim is just fine. He's got some spectacular bruises, and he won't be making public appearances until they fade." She actually smiled, and Caldwell found himself relaxing. "But thanks to you, he's just fine."
"Me?" It came out so small and hoarse he instinctively cleared his throat. And regretted it.
"You." Grace Marshall held the water for him again, something in her eyes warning him not to object. He thanked her when he'd swallowed the soothing water, and she set it aside with a smile. "Well, I must say you're a much easier patient than Shep. Lloyd Shepherd."
Caldwell managed a small nod. The fatigue that had been just barely at bay crashed over him without warning, and he found suddenly that he could hardly keep his eyes open.
"You're in a hospital in Washington, Ryan. Shep's just down the hall," the First Lady said from a very great distance. Her fingers slipped into his hand, the sensation indistinct. Caldwell fought a silent battle with ever-heavier eyelids. "Jim wanted to come see you, but...."
Caldwell's eyelids won.
There were other awakenings. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes with a nurse. He didn't struggle to remain conscious long, though he was aware that his breathing was easier and the ache was sometimes sharp instead of dull, which meant they were backing off on the drugs. Then he woke to find his hand held once again, the fingers small and slender.
Caldwell opened his eyes to find Alice, the president's daughter, sitting at his bedside, her fingers tucked in his. He remembered how she'd clung to his hand on Air Force One, when Marshall went off after the hijacker who'd dragged her mother away. Silence, then gunfire, then silence again. Knowing he was only a port in the storm, Caldwell had held her hand just as tightly as she held his until Marshall reappeared, and they both sighed in relief.
"You were dreaming," she said without preamble. "Your fingers twitch when you dream. These." She lightly touched his right hand, lying at his side. "Not these." Alice squeezed the fingers of the arm strapped across his chest. He wondered why she and her mother both felt it necessary to hold his hand, though he didn't object, and why they invariably held that one instead of the free one. It still felt to him as if the sensation came through a layer of intervening material, though he knew by now that the thick bandaging that swathed his shoulder and chest did not make it down to his hand. "Were you dreaming about the plane?"
"I don't remember," he lied. He shifted his head on the pillow, and Alice plumped it up for him with her free hand. "Do you dream about it?"
"Sometimes." Her grip tightened. "Sometimes, in my dreams, that man kills my father, and then we all die. Do you dream that?"
"May I have some water?" Caldwell asked, stalling. She got the cup and straw and would have held it for him, but he took it out of her hand. "He's very important," he said when he'd swallowed a few cool sips, "isn't he?"
"He's the president!"
Caldwell let his head fall back to the pillow and smiled. "Yes. I meant he's important to you."
"Yes." Alice didn't say 'of course' and she didn't give him the look teenagers reserved for particular stupidity, like asking if a girl's father was important to her. She took the cup back from him.
"I have the same dream," he admitted.
Alice rewarded him with a smile. After a minute, she said, "And sometimes.... Sometimes in my nightmares it's you that man kills. And we all die."
Caldwell took in a careful breath, at a loss. She smiled again, as if she hadn't said anything out of the ordinary, and changed the subject with the skill of a diplomat. Caldwell let her chatter wash over him, knowing in his bones it was a great deal less likely to drown him than what she'd already said.
Much later, after Grace Marshall came to collect her daughter and ask after Caldwell's comfort, he lay with his right hand propped behind his head, staring at the ceiling and trying to make sense of their promise to visit again soon.
How very strange. And comforting.
And how disconcerting to have to force himself not to ask if Marshall would be with them.
|"Well you certainly look better than I feel," Lloyd Shepherd
said as the attendants slotted Caldwell's stretcher into the back of
the ambulance. He turned gingerly onto his side and reached across the
narrow gap that separated his stretcher from Caldwell's. "Afternoon,
Major Caldwell. When I'm not stuck flat on my ass in an ambulance, I'm
the Chief of Staff, Lloyd--"
"Shepherd," Caldwell finished, taking the man's hand awkwardly. "I remember, sir. We were introduced on the plane." At the beginning of a rushed conference interrupted by gunfire. After which, titles and even names had become essentially moot. He was surprised Shepherd remembered his name.
Shepherd's grip was firm, despite the drawn and weary look of his face, and he held on a moment longer than usual. Then, his eyebrows rising, he turned Caldwell's hand, shifting his index finger to brush the still-dark bruises that garishly encircled Caldwell's wrist. Here and there, a fingermark was clearly visible.
"Jesus, Caldwell. Jim sure did a number on you."
Caldwell carefully disengaged his hand. "I believe he was desperate at the time, sir." He was grateful his other wrist was hidden by the sling. The bruises there -- the ones Shepherd had left -- were lighter and less distinct, but still visible.
"No shit." Shepherd grinned. "That's the understatement of the year."
A man wearing a blue EMT jacket jumped into the ambulance and skinned between the stretchers, bending to check that the frames had locked properly in place. He gave Caldwell's stretcher a little shake to make sure. Caldwell lifted his head to watch as the man hopped out and swung the doors shut with a double-thud that shook the vehicle.
Caldwell let his head fall back to the pillow. "Are we being kidnapped? They said I was going to x-ray."
Shepherd's laugh broke into a cough. When he got his breath back, he said, "That's not what your file will say. Your file will say you were transferred to a different hospital. At which, of course, you will never arrive."
"Oh?" Caldwell's voice was calm, but his heart-rate had speeded up considerably.
"Of course, the second hospital won't be expecting you, so no one will realize you never got there." Shepherd threw Caldwell a sly grin. "At least, that's how I'd do it."
"Do what?" Caldwell asked, by no means sanguine. What Shepherd was describing certainly sounded like a kidnapping.
"Get you transferred to the White House with no one the wiser. The fact that I'm being hauled there only makes it easier."
"The White House?"
"The media won't be in the least surprised that I'm recuperating there. I am, after all, the Chief of Staff and Jim's best buddy going back to the Stone Age. But they'd ask too many questions about a nobody Air Force officer."
Caldwell clamped his right hand around the stretcher railing as the ambulance swung away from the curb. He didn't take offense at Shepherd's words. He was a nobody Air Force officer, after all. So why the hell was he being taken to the White House?
He didn't realize he'd said it aloud until Shepherd laughed again. Coughed again. "The president's got a good memory, Major. He doesn't forget his enemies, and he never forgets a friend." He pushed his shoulders back against the stretcher and shifted in a manner that suggested discomfort. "How's the shoulder?"
"Feels about as good as your gut, I expect," Caldwell said, forgetting for a moment that he was talking to the Chief of Staff.
Shepherd chuckled, groaned, and finished by growling at him. Caldwell hadn't liked the man much when they first met on the plane, but subsequent events had caused him to reevaluate. Shepherd was a gruff man, given to snarling and sarcasm, but as brave as any Caldwell had ever met. Braver. Shepherd had thrown himself between Marshall and the terrorist in a moment when there was no doubt he'd be shot, perhaps fatally. And he wasn't a Secret Service man, trained to use his body as a shield.
Secret Service man. "Gibs." He'd almost managed to forget the bastard during his hospital stay. The memory came back with a vengeance. What churned in his gut wasn't the two bullets Gibs had pumped into his own body. It was the memory of Marshall handing Gibs his submachine gun in the briefing room. If the traitor had acted then....
"Yeah." Shepherd sighed, bracing himself as the ambulance took a corner a bit too fast. "Jim told me." He slanted Caldwell a look. "He told me you drew the bastard's fire."
Caldwell shifted his good shoulder against the stretcher. "Not intentionally."
"That's not the way Jim tells it."
Caldwell ignored the cryptic remark. "Mr. Shepherd--"
"Don't bother standing on ceremony, Major. Ryan. Hell, neither of us is going to be standing much of anywhere for a while. Might as well call me Shep."
"If you say so, sir."
Shepherd started to say something before he caught Caldwell's barely-concealed grin. "All right, Ryan," he growled. "What was it you wanted to know?" He clasped his hands over his belly and stared at the roof of the ambulance. "Be warned, though. If it involves national security, your curiosity'll just have to go unsatisfied." Shepherd said it so sardonically that Caldwell knew he was supposed to smile.
From the proliferation of horn-blowing, Caldwell guessed they were right in the middle of rush hour. He wet his lips and asked the question that had been bothering him from his first coherent awakening. "How did I get off Air Force One?"
"You're asking me? I wasn't even conscious." He slanted Caldwell another look and sighed. "As I've heard it, Ryan, in Jim's arms."
"It took Grace to convince him to let go, once you landed on Liberty 24." He glanced at Caldwell and broke into a grin. "Don't look so frightened, Ryan. You made it, after all!" A particularly loud horn cut through the medley. "For Christ's sake, why don't they just use the siren?"
Caldwell barely heard. He was too busy trying to decide which
was more terrifying -- the thought of traversing the chasm with no
safety line, or that of doing so in the arms of James Marshall.
He'd been in the White House a week, lodged in a room of surprising comfort, and seen no one regularly but the nurse who gave him his meds, the waiter who brought his meals, and the young woman whose job it was to torture him.
The First Lady had dropped in for a few minutes while they were getting him settled the first day to make sure he was comfortable and tell him to ask for anything he wanted. Anything at all. The one thing he wanted -- for her to stay -- he knew he couldn't request. A few days later, he caught a glimpse of Alice when the nurse was wheeling him to his appointment with the therapist/torturer. She grinned at him without pausing her pell mell progress to some vital destination. That was the extent of his social contact.
He found himself oddly disappointed without knowing quite why. Until he stopped to think about it. Then he was angry with himself. For god's sake, James Marshall had a lot more important things to worry about than one lonely major.
The therapist, Clara by name, was really a rather nice young lady, despite her determination to do things to his body without regard to its limitations. She was ostensibly coming in to work with Shepherd, but he hadn't healed enough to endure her tender ministrations yet. Caldwell, she said, would do.
It didn't fool him in the least, nor apparently her either, and he wondered just what sort of game was being played. For his efforts on the plane, Caldwell should have received at most an official thanks, perhaps a medal, and a longish stay in the closest V.A. hospital. Instead, he was lodged in the White House, being served by the staff and tortured twice daily by a therapist who never called him by anything but his rank. He wondered if she even knew his name.
It was extremely confusing. If he could have discovered where Shepherd was, he'd have gone to the Chief of Staff for answers. They might not have seen eye to eye on the plane, but there was no one, at this stage, he trusted more. Except the president.
Visiting Shepherd out of the question, Caldwell focused instead on the only task he'd been given. Healing. And managing contortions for Clara that felt like they were ripping his arm out of the socket. His sessions with her left him limp and dripping with sweat, grateful to slump in the wheelchair and allow himself to be pushed back to the room that rapidly came to feel like a refuge. And a prison. When he was with her, he was unable to think beyond the rending pain of attempting to accomplish the tasks she set him. When he was alone, he was unable to concentrate on anything but how miserably he was failing. Though he was slowly getting his breath back, the shoulder was another matter.
It didn't take Caldwell many sessions with Clara to realize
that he would be lucky to come out of this with half his previous range
of movement. He hadn't told anyone but the doctors about the decrease
in sensation. He hadn't anyone to tell.
Another week passed. Caldwell waved off the attendant with the wheelchair and began making his own way to and from his therapy sessions. The gym in the bowels of the White House where they took place seemed a mile away on the trip there. Five on the way back. Caldwell frequently paused on his return journey to collapse in the chairs spaced randomly along the halls, resting until he had the energy and breath to go on. Occasionally, people passed him. None gave him more than a cursory glance.
During one of those rests, Lloyd Shepherd was wheeled past. Caldwell lurched to his feet and caught up with no little effort. Shepherd shooed away his attendant and sat looking Caldwell over from his sneaker-clad feet to the fingers poking out of his sling.
Shepherd raised an eyebrow. "Look better than the last time I saw you."
"You as well, sir," Caldwell said, when he'd regained his breath. Shepherd still looked a little drawn, but his color was good, and there was a twinkle in his eye.
"I thought I told you to call me Shep."
"Well, sir." Caldwell found a smile lurking around the corners of his mouth, the first in a while. "I seem to be back on my feet now."
"Well I'm not, Ryan, so don't make an ass of yourself."
"I'll try not to, sir."
Shepherd laughed. "Sit down, for god's sake."
There was a padded bench nearby, and Caldwell didn't pretend he wasn't grateful to sink onto it. He leaned against the wall and settled his arm more comfortably in the sling. He didn't need it much anymore, but coming back from a session with Clara feeling like the weight of his arm was enough to tear it out of the socket was definitely the exception.
"How are you doing?"
Caldwell blinked. He thought they'd covered that. "Fine, sir." He caught Shepherd's frown. "Shep."
"That's better. And I meant, how are you settling in? Got everything you need?"
"Yes. Everyone's been very kind." He just wished he understood why.
There was a glint in Shepherd's eye that was almost teasing. "You don't look as if Clara was particularly kind to you today." He looked down the hall and grimaced. "On my way to the torture chamber myself."
"Wish you luck, sir." It was a hard habit to get out of, even with Shepherd glowering at him. This was the Chief of Staff, after all. Marshall's right hand man and best friend for more than twenty years.
"Thanks," Shepherd growled. "I'm going to need it."
"I doubt that... Shep. Clara mentioned you were doing well." He looked the man over, not missing the quirk to the thin lips that he was coming to realize was a smile. "I believe it."
"Well, I'm glad someone thinks so." The attendant, who'd been hovering out of earshot, began making abortive swooping movements toward them, like a butterfly that wanted to land on a flower but was uncertain of its safety. Shepherd sighed. "I suppose I shouldn't keep her waiting. Anything you need before I let him haul me off?"
"I--" Caldwell broke off, thinking better of it.
"What is it? Out with it, man."
"I was wondering where I might find you, sir. If I should have a question..."
"Or need to talk? Been a bit isolated, haven't you?" Shepherd grimaced. "Someone should have thought of that. I've been three years in this building -- most everybody knows me -- and even I've found visitors rather thin on the ground." He shook his head. "Look, I'll be pretty much dead after Clara's done with me. How 'bout I send someone tomorrow morning to show you the way to my apartment?"
"Thank you, sir." Caldwell hoped he didn't look as pitifully grateful as he felt.
"I'll change my mind about sending someone if you don't cut that out."
"Sorry. Shep." Caldwell glanced at the hovering attendant and when he looked back, Shepherd's sharp eyes were on him.
"Don't worry about it, Ryan. Just take each day as it comes and see what comes with it."
"But I don't even know what I'm doing here!"
"Recuperating." Shepherd's grin promised more than Caldwell knew he could ever get the man to tell.
When Caldwell got back to his room, he found Alice Marshall flopped across the bed, books and papers spread out around her.
"What do you know about French?" she asked while he was still gaping in the doorway.
"They speak it in France." He stepped inside, but left the door ajar, not sure what to think of the president's twelve year old daughter making herself at home on his bed, but woefully aware of what others might make of it. He'd seen how Marshall got when he was defending his family and the last thing he ever wanted to do was find himself on the receiving end of that rage.
"How about algebra?"
"Math was never my best subject."
"Lovely old fellow. Playwrite, wasn't he?" Caldwell perched uneasily in an armchair by the window. It had seemed much more comfortable during the long nights he'd sat there with a book and a glass of water that he wished was scotch. The left side of his chest ached dully. He breathed evenly and slowly to control it before it got worse.
"I hate my tutors." Alice closed her book with a snap and launched herself from the bed.
"Mm," Caldwell said intelligently, aware suddenly of the odor of stale sweat that clung to him, consequence of a hard session with Clara.
Alice eyed him and grinned. "You look as startled as you did when Dad told you to help him fly the plane." She glanced away, wrapping a lock of dark hair around and around her finger. "Do you still have nightmares?"
"Yes," he said quietly.
She nodded sharply and took a sudden step toward him. Her fingers, slender and slightly cool, coiled around his left hand. She smiled at him. "Warm. The doctors told us to check, when we were sitting with you. And let them know right away if your fingers got cold."
Caldwell blinked. He hadn't known they were that worried the circulation would falter. He must have come awfully close to losing his arm.
Alice gave his hand a quick squeeze and released him. "How's your shoulder?"
"It's been better," he said honestly.
"Will it be better again?"
"I hope so."
"Good." She started gathering up the papers she'd spread across his bed. A paperback slid off and skittered across the floor. He bent to pick it up.
"Twelfth Night." Caldwell fanned the pages, stopping to skim this one and that. "You know," he said, as if to himself, "old Shakespeare's not so bad once you get to know him."
"No. But he's one of those fellows who likes company." He glanced up at her confused expression and smiled a little. "He's better read aloud. Looking for a study partner?"
"I was," she admitted. "And you don't have anything better to do."
He smiled at her bluntness. "No, I don't suppose I do."
"General Tso's chicken. Szechuan beef. Sesame chicken."
Caldwell grimaced. "Too spicy." He rocked his shoulders to greater comfort in the corner of Shepherd's couch and crossed his sock-clad feet on the coffee table. "Fried Won Tons. Chicken Lo Mein. Pineapple chicken."
"Pineapple?" Shepherd made a face. "In Chinese food? That's almost as bad as pineapple on pizza."
"I'm rather fond of that as well," Caldwell said serenely.
"How weird can it be when the big pizza places all have a name for it?"
"They've got a name for it all right. Weird." Shepherd shifted in his corner of the couch, stretching until his feet almost touched Caldwell's. "Well, if spicy's out, how 'bout this: a thick rib-eye steak, tender and juicy, baked potato as big as a softball, garlic bread..."
"Don't," Caldwell pleaded, his mouth watering.
"Ah, what the hell." Shepherd scowled. "It's not like they're going to let either of us actually eat real food." He turned his scowl on Caldwell. "And they're probably going to give you the good stuff before they even let me get a whiff of it." He unconsciously rubbed his belly.
Caldwell hesitated before asking. Despite Shepherd's insistence on familiarity, they hadn't known each other long enough to really be friends, and he was the Chief of Staff, and.... Oh hell. "Problems?"
Shepherd grunted assent and rolled his eyes. "A piece of advice, Ryan: never get in the way of a bullet."
Caldwell kept his expression serious. "I'll bear that in mind, sir."
Shepherd scowled at him again and seemed about to call him to task for that 'sir' when it occurred to him that Caldwell was joking. Which was in of itself fairly amusing since Shepherd had been offering advice with his tongue so firmly planted in his cheek it was likely to take root there. Shepherd shook his head. "You always look so solemn, I keep forgetting you've got a sense of humor."
"That remark about Saddam Hussein's sons-in-law? Jim nearly cracked a smile."
"Mr. Doherty didn't find it amusing," Caldwell said, cautious in his invocation of the dead.
Shepherd sighed. "Jack never had much of a sense of humor, poor bastard." He brought his hands together on his chest and fiddled with the wedding ring he still wore, though Caldwell had seen something in the papers some time ago about the Chief of Staff's vicious divorce. "You know, I keep at it and at it, but I still can't figure out what he hoped to accomplish."
"Maybe he thought that if the terrorist--"
"Korshunov. At least, that's the name he was traveling under. Probably an alias. Not that it matters now the son of a bitch is dead. I would like to have seen his face," Shepherd said casually, "when he realized, in that last moment of his life, that he took on the wrong man."
"As would I," Caldwell agreed quietly, though to be honest he'd seen enough death. He was willing to simply take this Korshunov's death as a given and be glad for it. No one seemed to know precisely how Marshall had dealt with the man; Caldwell had a cold sinking feeling that the president had come far too close to dying in the process. He returned to the previous subject. "Maybe Mr. Doherty thought that if Korshunov believed he was making progress -- that he had a powerful negotiator right there on board -- he wouldn't shoot any of us."
"Or maybe he just thought Korshunov wouldn't shoot him." Shepherd closed his eyes with a grimace and waved off his own comment. "Sorry. I shouldn't say things like that. Jack was a good man, and I'm a cynical bastard. Soda?" he asked abruptly, rising from the couch with the caution of a man who wasn't entirely sure his gut had been tacked back together properly. "Since the damned doctors won't let us drink...."
"What do you want?" Shepherd crouched by the small fridge tucked into the corner. His sitting room was small and looked rather as if it hadn't been redecorated since the Civil War, but somehow very comfortable for all that. Or perhaps it was Shepherd's undemanding presence that was comfortable.
"Whatever you've got is okay by me."
Shepherd laughed. "Are you always this easy, Ryan?"
There was an odd feeling in Caldwell's left hand, which probably meant he'd been putting too much pressure on his shoulder. He sat up. "I suppose so, sir," he said absently as he stretched, holding his sling-encased arm against his side with his right hand as he cautiously leaned his head to the right.
Shepherd growled, and Caldwell quickly amended, "Shep."
"When are you going to start remembering that, Ryan?"
"I don't know, sir," Caldwell said, sticking the 'sir' in on purpose this time. "It takes some getting used to."
"I suppose it does. Certainly took me long enough to get used to hearing it all the time. But I don't need to hear it from you, so cut it out, got me?"
Caldwell grinned. "Yes, sir."
Shepherd released a gusty sigh and muttered something Caldwell couldn't hear. He had the distinct impression the Chief of Staff was appealing to the heavens. Shepherd scowled at Caldwell as he handed him an icy soda. "Shoulder all right?" he asked as Caldwell stopped the careful stretch to take it.
Shepherd raised an eyebrow that dared Caldwell to tell the truth.
"Movement's not bad," Caldwell said, demonstrating by wiggling his fingers in the sling. He was able to curl them smoothly into a loose fist, though his ring and pinky fingers would no longer move separately with even the fiercest effort. It was a good thing he was right-handed, but he'd still have to relearn how to type before he could take up his old job again. The fist was even strong enough to hold things now. Light things, anyway.
"And the big movements?" Shepherd asked as if he were fully aware of the extent of Caldwell's injuries and the progress he'd made in therapy. He probably was.
"Getting better." He didn't try to demonstrate that. It was still unreliable -- sometimes he could move his shoulder through about half an arc, sometimes less. Just now, he had a feeling it would be less.
"And?" Shepherd prompted. He'd definitely read Caldwell's file.
Caldwell grimaced. "Feels like I'm constantly wearing a glove up to here." He tapped the middle of his lower arm. It wasn't a clean break, of course. If he felt around, he could find the ragged edges where the numbness faded off, some higher, some lower than the line he'd indicated.
"Sometimes. I think," Caldwell said, being more honest with Shepherd than he usually was with himself, or even his doctors.
"Must be damned inconvenient."
Caldwell shrugged. "Be more inconvenient to have lost it."
"There is that." Shepherd patted his stomach gently and repeated, almost to himself, "There is that." He waited until Caldwell had opened the soda and taken a long drink before saying, "So how's it going with Alice?"
Caldwell choked. "How the hell--"
Shepherd smiled, a sly quirk of the lips that made Caldwell quite sure the Chief of Staff was responsible for all the political maneuvering of Marshall's presidency. "Well," Shepherd said, settling back in his corner of the couch and resting the soda on his stomach. "You might say I sent her to you."
"I might, might I?"
Shepherd nodded, his eyes on the ceiling. "She comes to visit her 'Uncle Shep' now and then, and lately it's been nothing but complaints about her tutor. So I suggested she could do worse than ask for your help."
It took a very great effort not to choke on his soda again. "What the devil made you think I could help?"
"Hell, Ryan, she's twelve! You've got to know at least a little more than she does."
Shepherd smiled at the ceiling. "You're welcome." He lifted his head enough to take a drink. "Was I wrong?"
"Hell if I know."
Shepherd laughed. "Don't worry about it, Ryan. She's a bright kid. She just needs someone to hold her hand so she doesn't get too bored when she's studying."
"And you thought I was a good candidate to revisit, what is it, seventh grade? God!" He let his head drop back to the couch.
"Tell me something, Ryan. Are you bored when she's with you?"
"Good god, no!" Alice was going to lead the men one hell of a lively dance when she grew up.
"There you have it."
Caldwell lifted his head and stared at Shepherd. "You sent her to me so I wouldn't be bored?"
"It's working, isn't it? And I don't have to listed to endless gripes about her tutor anymore."
"No. I do."
"Works for me."
"You're a sly son of a bitch, Lloyd Shepherd, sir."
"That I am, Major Caldwell. That I am." Shepherd put his feet up on the coffee table. "Besides." He nudged Caldwell's feet, which were already there. "I was getting tired of fielding questions about how you were."
Shepherd ignored Caldwell's confusion. He gulped soda and said, finally, "She came to visit me in the hospital, you know. Of course she did, I'm her goddamn godfather. She always took off after a few minutes to go sit with you."
"I was unconscious," Caldwell protested. At least, he assumed he was, as he only remembered one visit from Marshall's daughter.
"Thereby a much better patient than I was." Shepherd smiled, as if it amused him to tell tales on himself. "The one time Jim was able to stop in and visit, Alice went back and forth between your room and mine every five minutes, bringing updates on your condition. By the time they left, I wished to hell Jim had just gone and seen for himself."
Caldwell did too, so strongly it scared him.
Shepherd slanted a glance at him and laughed, a short amused bark. "For god's sake, Ryan, stop looking so worried. You've got friends here now, a family if you want it. And you might as well get used to it, because it's not going away."
"I hear you're well acquainted with old Will."
Caldwell nearly jumped out of his skin. As it was almost all he was wearing, the abrupt sound of Marshall's voice was more than startling. It was mortifying.
Caldwell grabbed instinctively at the towel around his waist as he whirled to face the president. Marshall was sitting on the bed, leaning negligently against one of the tall bedposts, much like his daughter usually did. Alice, of course, was the reason for the towel -- one didn't saunter out of the bathroom naked when the president's daughter was as likely to be sprawled on the bed as not.
"If you salute me, Major," Marshall said as Caldwell started to do just that, "I'll bust you down to private."
"Yes, Mr. President. No, Mr. President." Caldwell closed his eyes and took a deep breath that didn't hurt as much as it had two weeks ago. He sounded like an idiot. "Is there something I can do for you, Mr. President?" What he wanted to do was grab his clothes and beat a quick retreat into the bathroom.
"For starters, you can stop calling me Mr. President."
Marshall sighed. "I suppose that's an improvement." He reached for the book on the nightstand and flipped through the pages. "'But, come what may, I do adore thee so,'" he read, a passage Caldwell had underlined in a moment of weakness. He wished now he hadn't. "'That danger shall seem sport, and I will go.'"
The situation was having a predictable effect on Caldwell, and he was mortified to realize that his reaction could not be attributed entirely to embarrassment. Standing there nearly naked in front of the most powerful man in the world, with a hard-on the towel would do little to hide if it got any more insistent, and knowing suddenly that it was at least partly pure desire for this man... it was almost past bearing. Swaying, Caldwell closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
Oblivious, Marshall flipped a few more pages. Though Caldwell appreciated Marshall's distraction, he hoped fervently the man wouldn't read any more of the underlined passages aloud. Hearing Marshall's distinctive voice intone those words could only aggravate his condition. "Alice told us you were helping her. In fact, the last two weeks have consisted entirely of Ryan this and Ryan that."
Caldwell fought the instinct to clasp his hands in front of him. It could only draw attention to his condition. "Sorry about that, sir."
"On the contrary, at least she's excited about her lessons again." Marshall set the book back on the nightstand. "I hear you're better than her tutor."
"More entertaining, perhaps." God, what if Marshall noticed? Would he believe he understood -- every man in the world had popped a woody at some totally inappropriate moment -- or would he demand some sort of explanation? Caldwell wasn't sure which would be worse, joking commiseration from Marshall or a stumbling, excuse-ridden apology of his own.
"When did you study Shakespeare?"
Caldwell swallowed. "The books are annotated, sir."
"Maybe, but she's actually picking it up from you. You must have studied it at some point."
"I might have had a class here or there." Caldwell fought a blush, oddly enough not caused by his condition. "I had the idea I wanted to be an actor."
"How did you end up in the Air Force?"
"Needed money for college, sir."
"ROTC, huh? What happened?"
Caldwell shrugged carefully. "Turned out to be better at it than I was at college." He'd quit college, blasted through the Air Force academy, and never looked back.
"My gain," Marshall remarked. He stood, the presence he didn't seem to be aware of having making the room feel much smaller than it was.
Caldwell just barely prevented himself from backing away. Christ, why now? He hadn't felt this way about a man since college. When he joined the Air Force, he made himself forget he could feel desire for a man. And now... Good god, could he pick anyone more inappropriate? A fervently married man with a wife he adored and a beautiful young daughter. The President of the United States, for Christ's sake!
The president was speaking. "I've been jammed up with meetings and fundraisers or I'd have come by sooner." He shook his head. "Getting reelected is a real bitch. You gotta stop doing the job to get the go ahead to keep doing the job. Damn stupid system."
"At least most of our enemies are still too shell-shocked to get up to any trouble." Indeed, if the newspapers delivered to Caldwell's door every morning were anything to go by, the entire world was still trying to digest the fact that the president of the United States had single-handedly taken out the terrorists who dared attack his plane. That 'single-handedly' didn't bother Caldwell; Marshall was the one who'd done it all. If it weren't for him, they'd all be dead.
"Hmm," Marshall said, with that faint quirk to his lips that might have been a smile. "You may be right at that." Something in his voice made Caldwell think he hadn't really been listening. "How are you getting along?"
"Just fine, sir."
Marshall's eyes were on the scarring that spanned Caldwell's shoulder and upper chest. The raised welts were still an angry red. Though they'd fade, Caldwell doubted they'd get any less ugly. His hands twitched as he forced himself not to cover the scars.
"You're a very unusual man, Major Caldwell," Marshall murmured, his eyes on the lowest of the scars, the entry wound of Gibs' first shot that marred the smooth skin not far above Caldwell's left nipple. His tone was bedroom soft, and Caldwell caught himself swaying toward the man. Marshall blinked and asked in a crisper tone, "How's the arm?"
"No, it's not." Marshall circled him with a prowl like a jungle cat's. Only years of training kept Caldwell from moving. Especially when warm fingers brushed the larger web of scars on his back, the touch so light and fleeting it almost wasn't there. "I've read the reports. They're talking about giving you a medical discharge." He came back around to stand in front of Caldwell.
Caldwell hadn't known that. He swallowed hard. "If you knew, sir, why did you ask?"
"Wanted to hear your response." Marshall stepped back. "It's about what I expected." He half turned away, his torso and head only. Caldwell was grateful for the respite from Marshall's eyes. "What would you do if you left the Air Force?"
"I don't know, sir." He was shaking, and didn't know if the cause was his uncertain future or Marshall's presence. Having seen the man in action on Air Force One, Caldwell was far too aware of how powerful Marshall -- the man, not the president -- was. It would be easy for Caldwell to lose himself.
Marshall let his upper body turn back towards Caldwell. He tapped the fingers of both hands lightly on his pants in an irregular rhythm. "Would you consider a job with the Secret Service?"
"I seem to be short a few bodyguards."
The air in the room suddenly felt quite cold. Caldwell was startled enough to forget his military stance and rub his palm uneasily over his bare belly. "If I'm no longer able-bodied enough for the Air Force, sir," he said, not letting the words cut him, "then I have no business acting as your bodyguard."
"Let me be the judge of that."
"No." Caldwell saw Marshall blink at his temerity. "Begging your pardon, sir, but I can't let you do that."
Marshall's lips compressed briefly, then curved in a smile. "I should have expected that. Get dressed, Caldwell," he said suddenly. "I want to show you something."
Caldwell dressed with shaking hands while Marshall stood at the window, his back to the room. The clothes Caldwell had laid out on the bed were casual. Everything he had was casual, clothing provided by some White House staffer who'd surely resented shopping for a nobody Air Force officer. It had hardly mattered, until now. But jeans and a button-down shirt were not appropriate for a visit with the most powerful man in the world. Caldwell rubbed a shaking hand over his shirt.
"You look fine, Caldwell," Marshall said, startling him. He turned from the window. "Come on."
Marshall set a rapid pace down the hall that Caldwell, who'd been showering off the stink of a particularly difficult session with Clara when the president invaded his room, struggled to match. After a minute, Marshall shot a sideways glance at him and slowed.
"Don't believe in speaking up?"
"Sir?" Caldwell asked, glad his breathlessness wasn't reflected in his voice. The ache in his chest was a faint echo of its previous self.
Marshall barked a laugh. "Don't come over shy with me now. You were certain enough of yourself on the plane."
"That's not quite the same, sir."
They passed a cluster of men and women in business suits and uniforms. The uniforms saluted the president, everyone else nodded, and they all stepped out of the way without breaking their conversation. Not one of them spared Caldwell so much as a glance. He felt more than a little invisible at Marshall's side.
"No," Marshall agreed, "it isn't the same. There are men who have all the answers when everything's under control. And then there are the men you want with you when the chips are down." He skirted an open door and ducked down another hallway. "You're one of those men, Caldwell."
"Who remembered the parachutes? Who realized we could use the refueling to effect an escape in the what... twenty seconds after I mentioned it? There were at least half a dozen Air Force officers and members of the flight crew among the hostages. Did even one of them think of those parachutes?" Marshall shook his head. "No, you're a man to be reckoned with, Caldwell. A man to have at one's back. You showed me as much on the plane. And I'll be damned if I'll let the Air Force squander that." He held a door for Caldwell. "Or take it away from me."
Caldwell drew in a breath at Marshall's tone of fierce possessiveness. Before he could say anything -- which was well because he had no idea what to say -- a familiar voice barked, "Jim, thank god! Where the hell have you been?"
"Something wrong, Shep?"
Lloyd Shepherd did not rise from the plush couch, on which he looked as perfectly at home as he did on his own. He spared Caldwell a quick nod and scowled at Marshall. "Don't play innocent with me. I know you too well for that. You slipped the leash. Donato's been going half-mad looking for you."
As if mention of the man made him visible, Caldwell became aware of a bulky blond fellow standing against the wall, partially obscured by the open door. He had blue eyes, a buzz cut, and the self-effacing manner of a secret service agent. Only a hint of irritation showed in his piercing eyes, but it was enough.
"Shep." Marshall smiled. "What could happen to me in the White House?"
"What could happen on Air Force One?"
"And the secret service did me so much good there," Marshall said under his breath, but perfectly audibly. Caldwell wasn't the only one aware of the way Donato stiffened.
"Well." Shepherd slapped his hands against his thighs and levered himself out of the couch. He was moving much better than when Caldwell first started visiting him. "Now that you've resurfaced and the emergency's canceled, I'll get back to my job. Come by my office tomorrow, Ryan." He gave Caldwell's good shoulder a thump. "We'll have a talk. Donato." Shepherd nodded to the agent, who opened the door for him.
"Mr. President." Donato's bulky frame filled the doorway. Looking at him, Caldwell had no doubt there wasn't a man alive who could get past him if he was determined to stand his ground.
"Sorry about that, Donato. I'll behave." Marshall sounded about as sincere as a teenager promising to be home by eleven.
"Yes, Mr. President." He didn't by so much as the flicker of an eyebrow show disbelief. Then Donato closed the door, and Caldwell was once again alone with Marshall.
"Can't get away from them, even for a moment," Marshall muttered.
"It's their job, sir."
Marshall appeared not to hear. He yanked his tie down and unfastened the top button of his dress shirt. "Drink?" he asked, heading for an island of glass clustered on a sideboard.
"No thank you, sir." Caldwell surveyed the room, adding absently, "Meds."
It was a comfortable room, part family dining room, part den. There was an oval table of impressive proportions, its top strewn with paper in a pattern familiar to Caldwell from Alice's forays into his room. The couch and matching chairs, comfortable and well-used, faced an armoire with polished oak doors half-closed over an elaborate home theater system. In addition to the door they'd come through, three doors opened off the room, all closed. There was an afghan thrown over the back of the couch, a pair of shoes discarded in the corner, and other little touches that showed people really lived there. It was clearly a retreat, made comfortably shabby by almost four years of use by a family too much in the public eye. Caldwell had a feeling few people were welcomed into this sanctum.
"How bad is it?" Marshall poured two fingers of amber into a tumbler.
It took Caldwell a moment to recapture the thread of the conversation. "Not bad."
Marshall pointed at Caldwell around his glass. "You're lying to me again. Don't apologize," he added before Caldwell could. He plumped down in one corner of the couch and gestured to the other. "Sit, will you."
"This is our area," Marshall told him unnecessarily, "Grace's and Alice's and mine." He paused for a drink. Still at sea about his purpose there, Caldwell held his tongue. "We even manage dinner together, when there's no banquet or fundraiser or other damned event to go to." He glanced around, as if trying to see the room with new eyes. "What do you think of it?"
"Seems very comfortable, sir."
"But you're not," Marshall said with unwelcome perception. Caldwell didn't respond. Marshall's mouth quirked. "You're wondering what you're doing here and you shouldn't be. I told you what I wanted."
"A bodyguard?" Caldwell shook his head. "You've got an army of them. All more capable than me. What would you want with a crippled soon to be ex-Air Force major?"
"A man I can trust," Marshall said simply. "A man who's proven himself in the most convincing manner possible." He glanced around the room and his lips firmed. Caldwell had become intimately familiar with that look of determination on the plane. "This place is ours, Caldwell. Ours. I won't have a man in here I can't trust."
"The secret service--"
"They failed, Major. They failed me and every man and woman aboard that plane."
"Sir, you can't tar all your agents with the same brush--"
"Just because of one? I'm not. But no one can deny that an error was made. Somehow Gibs got through. For god's sake, Major, he was a member of my close protection team; he's taken my daughter shopping!" It wasn't surprising that a man like Marshall would find that more disturbing than the number of times he himself had relied upon Gibs' protection. "How much trust should I place in the rest of them? What if there's another Gibs?"
"What if there's not?" Caldwell's urgency overrode his deference. "You can't just--"
"No, I can't. Hell, obviously I haven't," Marshall said, with a wave toward the door Donato stood outside. "But if I can't rely on my close protection team, I need a man even closer. A man who's already proven himself. I want a man I can trust absolutely. I want you."
A shudder went through Caldwell at Marshall's choice of words. Out of Marshall's sight, Caldwell's left hand closed into a fist so tight he knew his nails were cutting into his palm. He couldn't feel it. What was worse was that, for the life of him he couldn't say whether his strongest emotion was terror or anticipation.
"Look, Major." Marshall set his drink on the stand next to him. "Don't say anything yet. For god's sake, at least don't say no!" He grinned, but it didn't sit comfortably on his mouth. "Talk to Shep tomorrow. He'll arrange a meeting with Jack Arthurs, head of the secret service."
"I doubt he'll--"
"He'll do what he's told," Marshall snapped. He took a quick breath, then smiled suddenly. "I'm sounding very presidential, aren't I? Look, Arthurs doesn't roll over at anyone's bidding. Even the president's," he added with a touch of self-mockery. "He'll judge your abilities and give me an honest assessment. Just see him, will you?"
"Ryan." Shepherd came out from behind his desk to shake hands. He grinned. "You look shell-shocked."
"Do I, sir?" Caldwell instinctively retreated behind a formality he hadn't shown Shepherd for the better part of two weeks. But the tiny sitting room of Shepherd's White House apartment was a far cry from the Chief of Staff's office. As soon as he walked through the door, Caldwell was reminded of just what his friend did for a living.
"Maybe a little. Don't let Jim steamroll you." Shepherd's grip tightened, and Caldwell felt a sudden shock of sense memory. Half out the tailcone of Air Force One, fifteen thousand feet of nothing between him and the ground, Marshall's hands hard and desperate on his wrist. Caldwell was losing ground, his fingers slipping on the cool metal struts, the weight of the man tearing his body apart. Unable to pull Marshall in, unable to do anything but hang on, slowly losing his grip, Caldwell had heard a voice. "Major." Saw a hand thrust at him. Shepherd's grip had been tight, strong, certain. How long had he been caught there, torn between these two men? Caldwell wondered suddenly if he still was.
"Ryan? Major Caldwell. You all right?"
Caldwell blinked and released Shepherd's hand. "Fine, sir. Shep," he amended when Shepherd scowled.
"Take a load off, Ryan. You look ready to drop." Shepherd sank into a butternut leather sofa and Caldwell took the matching chair.
He was, in truth, exhausted. He'd just come from physical therapy, where he pushed himself until Clara ordered him to get out. Before that, he'd spent a sleepless night staring out the window at the moonlit grounds of the White House. How could he ever have guessed he'd be looking out on that sight? Or be so conflicted about it. The occasional guard passing on his rounds did nothing to calm Caldwell's mind. What the president was asking him to do.... He'd tried a dozen times, but could not make himself certain whether the pounding of his heart was some form of pride -- to be chosen, and by this man! -- or sheer abject terror. Marshall's offer had made the abrupt attraction he felt for the man the least of Caldwell's worries.
"I expected you earlier," Shepherd said easily.
Caldwell colored. "Got lost."
Shepherd laughed. "It is something of a rabbit warren, isn't it? I'm sorry, I should have sent someone to show you the way." He leaned back and laced his fingers on his belly. "Of course, if you're going to stick around, you'll have to learn your way about the place. You are going to stick, aren't you?"
"Yes," slipped out unbidden. Caldwell swallowed. "No. I don't know." He looked up to find Shepherd's thin lips curved in a sympathetic smile. "Why me?" Caldwell asked helplessly.
"Why not you? He likes you. His wife and daughter like you. Alice, I suspect, loves you."
"Don't worry about it, Ryan. She's twelve. Crushes are the norm for that age, and crushes on the unattainable are just icing on the cake." There was a knock on the door, and a waiter came bearing a tray laden with coffee and danishes. He put it on the coffee table at Shepherd's direction and went silently out. Shepherd poured, added milk and sugar and pushed the cup into Caldwell's hand. "Snap out of it, Ryan. Alice is not the point. The fact that her father likes and trusts you is the point."
Caldwell shook his head slowly, his brow creased in confusion. "Why me?" he said again, almost to himself.
"You were with him every step of the way on that plane. You came up with a way to get the hostages off, you fought the terrorists alongside him, you helped him fly the plane, you protected him from Gibs." He paused in his recitation, delivered as if he were hammering nails, and smiled thinly. "If it weren't for you, he'd have exited Air Force One at fifteen thousand feet without a parachute."
"I was frozen stiff. His best friend, clinging to a strap safely inside the plane while this unassuming Air Force major, who'd met Jim less than two hours before, charges out to the end of the jump ramp to pull him back in." Shepherd's lips twisted in self-condemnation.
"If it weren't for you, we'd both have gone out the back of that plane."
"And I hardly protected him from Gibs," Caldwell went on. "President Marshall took care of Gibs. I just got myself shot."
"Join the club. Look, Ryan, can't you see why he trusts you? Hell, you were defending him before you even knew it was him. In the briefing room," he prompted when Caldwell frowned, "when I was making an ass of myself. You spoke up for 'the secret service man on the baggage deck.' You know," Shepherd went on conversationally, "I'm not going to apologize for that. I honestly thought I'd be next, for the sake of a loose cannon with no chance of helping us."
"You might well have been."
"Grace and Alice were being held as bargaining chips, and with Jack Doherty dead, I was about as 'someone more important' as I could get. Enough of that." Shepherd shook himself like a dog throwing off water. "You can see why Jim wants you. You've proven yourself. He trusts you."
Shepherd's words set off several reactions in Caldwell, some he definitely didn't want the other man to notice. "Then how can I betray that trust by taking the job, Shep? A man in my condition protecting a president?" His hand lifted unconsciously to his shoulder.
"Not just any president. James Marshall." Shepherd's eyes glinted at Caldwell from under half-lowered lids. He had the distinct impression he was being tested. And that Shepherd could see right through him.
"Yes," he said, not quite managing to hide his unease.
"You know, it's funny." Shepherd's manner was so off-hand it put Caldwell instantly on his guard. "You weren't afraid of him on the plane." Shepherd eyed him as if he was seeing something in Caldwell that Caldwell himself had missed. "What's changed?" he said, almost to himself, and some hitherto silent alarm bell rang in Caldwell's mind.
"I don't think I know what you mean, sir."
Shepherd shook himself abruptly and went on as if Caldwell hadn't spoken. He even ignored the 'sir.' "No matter. You'll get over it. He may be the president, but James Marshall is still just a guy doing a job. Then again, maybe that's the part that scares you." He stood and went to his desk, suddenly all business, and Caldwell rose as well. "Can't sit around all day chatting. Jack Arthurs has been waiting to meet you," Shepherd said as he picked up the phone. "Send him in, will you? Thanks, Laura."
Caldwell fought the breathless feeling that his life was spiraling out of his control. Half a dozen objections jammed in his throat. The only one that came out was, "What if I'm not good enough?"
"Jack will see to that."
Caldwell had the distinct impression that "seeing to that" had nothing to do with discouraging Marshall in this lunatic idea.
Shepherd read his expression accurately and grinned. "He usually gets what he wants."
"Because he's the president?"
"Because he's James Marshall."
"So." Jack Arthurs tossed Caldwell's file on the coffee table. He'd co-opted the chair Caldwell was sitting in earlier, and Caldwell perched uneasily on the couch. Shepherd had made himself scarce after introducing them, leaving Caldwell with the distinct feeling he'd been abandoned in front of a firing squad.
Arthurs was a grizzled man with a military cut to him, his broad shoulders making him look shorter than he was. His handshake had been firm and brisk, his eyes piercing as they sized Caldwell up. Whatever judgment he came to didn't show on his face. Caldwell very much feared he'd been found lacking.
"Twenty years in the Air Force," Arthurs said, tapping the discarded folder.
Caldwell forced himself to relax a little -- there wasn't anything there to be ashamed of. "Yes, sir."
"You seem to have kept your head down, Major. No demerits or reprimands."
"No citations either."
"So what happened? You wake up one morning and decide to be a hero?"
Irritated, Caldwell snapped, "Somebody had to," before he had a chance to think better of it.
Arthurs threw his head back and laughed, a peal of hearty amusement that didn't begrudge Caldwell anything. The head of the secret service settled back in the chair and crossed his legs comfortably. "Not as meek as you look, are you?"
Arthurs laughed again. Caldwell relaxed enough to stop hovering on the edge of the couch. For the first time, he noticed how comfortable the soft leather was.
"All right," Arthurs said. "Let's talk turkey. You've got the standard military training. No special ops."
"Anything not on your record?"
Arthurs picked up the file and flipped through it again. "Docs report that the bullet through the lung hasn't done you any lasting harm."
"So they say." When he stopped waking in the night gasping for breath, his chest again feeling as if half a ton of bricks were piled on it, he'd be more inclined to believe them. Perhaps when he stopped dreaming about the plane....
"Still giving you problems?" Arthurs dismissed that with an offhand wave. "It's only been a few weeks."
Caldwell nodded, already planning his next visit with Clara and how he'd go about convincing her to speed up his physical therapy. He had the distinct impression he'd be getting this job whether he wanted it or not. And despite the fear and the sick anticipation, he did want the job. But he'd be damned if he'd let Marshall rely on a man who wasn't up to snuff. Especially if that man were him.
"How the hell'd you survive that?" Arthurs flipped a page in the report over and back, frowning at it. "With that trajectory, the bullet should have blasted right through your heart."
"Situs inversus dextrocardia, sir." Caldwell allowed a small smile. "My heart's on the wrong side. All the internal organs in my upper body are." It was a rare condition. One Caldwell had never had cause to be grateful for before.
Arthurs' eyebrows went up. He snorted. "Helpful."
"In this case, yes sir."
Arthurs peered at him for a minute, as if he could see the difference in Caldwell's body if he looked hard enough. Then he shook his head and resorted to the paperwork again, though he must have read it all through earlier. "Biggest problem looks to be the shoulder. You prepared to work on that?"
"Anything I have to do, sir."
Arthurs nodded, as if it was only what he'd expected. He closed the file and dropped it on the coffee table again before settling back in the chair and catching Caldwell in that piercing gaze for an extremely uncomfortable couple of minutes. It took everything in Caldwell not to squirm. "There's no denying it's unorthodox," Arthurs said finally, "but the Man has a bee in his bonnet about this. And the Man gets what the Man wants."
"Anything?" Caldwell asked skeptically.
"If he were trying to ditch part of his secret service escort, you'd better believe he wouldn't get it. But he's not dropping any of my men, and I don't have any cause for complaint if he adds someone. As long as they've been thoroughly vetted." Arthurs shot Caldwell a look. "If you have any skeletons in your closet, Major, you'd better haul 'em out right now, cause I guarantee we'll find them."
"No, sir." The interest he'd felt in a male classmate in college had never got beyond that, thank god. There had been times he'd wished otherwise -- there was something to be said for at least knowing what it was he'd turned his back on. But now he was grateful. God only knew how comfortable Marshall would feel if he learned his hand-picked bodyguard swung both ways. Probably about as comfortable as Caldwell felt, knowing he was letting himself in for hell. It took a certain kind of masochism to turn yourself into the constant companion of a man you desired and could never have.
"Officially, you'd be an agent of the secret service. Unofficially, you'll be at Marshall's beck and call, responsible to no one but him. And me if you get him killed," Arthurs added in a growl.
Caldwell nodded. If he outlived Marshall, Arthurs' revenge would be the last thing on his mind.
"Any questions? I won't ask if you have any concerns; no sane man wouldn't."
Caldwell couldn't help but smile at that. He sobered instantly. "The doctors don't give me much hope that the shoulder will come back fully. If it comes to hand to hand combat..."
"There are ways around any incapacity. Give me some time in the gym and I'll show you."
"Good." Caldwell didn't try to hide his relief or his gratitude. Arthurs' parting handshake was warmer than his greeting had been.
|"Look what the cat dragged in."
It was too close a description of how Caldwell felt for him to take offense. "You invited me."
"That invitation was for..." Shepherd made a show of consulting his watch. "...five hours ago." But he stepped out of the doorway to let Caldwell pass.
Caldwell walked straight to the couch and lowered himself onto it in a movement that was just short of outright collapse. He lifted a hand to his shoulder and rubbed roughly. It was starting to become a habit, though he didn't know yet if he'd do it even if his shoulder didn't hurt. He'd yet to experience that without the use of painkillers that made him useless for days. Shepherd came over to stand on the other side of the coffee table, his hands in his pockets. He was casual in a black polo shirt and black jeans.
"Black suits you."
"You look like crap."
"God, yes!" Arthurs didn't believe in coddling his agents, or the man foisted on him by the president. The bad guys don't stop for dinner and neither will we.
"Phone's at your elbow." Shepherd headed around the end of the couch. "Order yourself something. Want a beer?" he asked as Caldwell picked up the phone and asked the switchboard for the kitchen.
"It'll probably put me to sleep."
The kitchen answered just then, and by the time Caldwell had finished ordering -- grilled ham and cheddar on sourdough and french fries -- Shepherd dropped on the other end of the couch with two beers and a bottle opener shaped like a shark (because I was a lawyer -- Jim's sense of humor, you know...).
"I'm surprised Jack lets you eat like that." Shepherd opened one of the bottles and handed it to Caldwell.
"He doesn't care what I eat, as long as I can keep up with him." Caldwell lifted the bottle and wet his lips, figuring he ought to go slow until he had some food in him. "You eat already?" He ought to have -- the hands on the clock had rounded eleven and were coming up fast on midnight. Caldwell had dithered over whether or not to drop in on Shepherd for the entire time it took him to walk from the gym to the Chief of Staff's apartment. Though he knew an evening of beer and conversation, dinner and a ballgame or a movie or whatever they could agree on, was a lost cause, he'd still found himself at Shepherd's door.
"About four hours ago."
Caldwell frowned and took a slightly larger sip of beer. "You shouldn't have waited."
"How's Jack treating you?" As if Shepherd didn't know. The number of times Caldwell had collapsed, half-dead, on his couch was approaching the ridiculous.
"One of these days, that man is going to kill me." And if he didn't, one of his agents might very well. They weren't happy to see Caldwell fast-tracked into a position no one had ever been privileged to occupy before. His quiet perseverance and uncomplaining compliance with everything Jack dropped on him had had the happy side-effect of winning some of them over, but he knew that to many he would always be an interloper. The teacher's pet getting the cushy job. They had no idea how terrified he was.
"You don't have to do it, you know."
Shepherd swallowed a mouthful of beer. "Look, Jim wants you," he said, not knowing how that innocent phrase shook Caldwell's nerves. "You don't have to prove yourself worthy. If Jack doesn't pass you, Jim will simply find another way."
"And I'll decline. Regretfully, but I'll decline." Caldwell set his beer on the side table and sat forward, his elbows on his knees. He stared down at his hands, rubbing his left hand over the scraped and bruised knuckles of the right. His right hand ached. The left... didn't. Somewhere deep, the nerves prickled uncomfortably and he straightened up, hoping a change in position would relieve the pressure on his shoulder. "I can't take on the protection of the President of the United States if I'm not up to the job."
"Ryan," Shepherd said, his tone so perfectly reasonable it was almost a parody of itself, "the secret service protects the president. Any assassin would have to get through them first. You have nothing to worry about."
"That argument is pure sophistry and you know it. The whole point is to have someone around in case the secret service can't take out the assassin." Or there's another traitor. That idea underlay every word anyone exchanged on the subject, no matter how much they preferred not to think about it. "I can't take the job saying it'll never happen. The whole point of the job is that it might."
Shepherd drank beer and looked at Caldwell until he shifted uncomfortably. Finally, Shepherd said, "The point is not to have 'someone' around. The point is to have you around."
There was a knock on the door then, and by the time the steward had delivered Caldwell's belated dinner to the small table in one corner of the room and taken himself off again, it was too late to recapture the conversation without making an issue of it. Shepherd brought his beer over and kept Caldwell company while he ate, stealing a french fry every so often.
"They told you not to eat those," Caldwell said when the third one disappeared into Shepherd's mouth.
"They told me not to eat a lot of things," Shepherd said with a shrug, as if he'd not been warned, quite literally on pain of death, to clean up his act. Caldwell was well aware of Shepherd's disgust with the restrictions his damaged gut put on him. He was also aware that, by and large, Shepherd was following his doctors' orders. "So, what's Jack had you doing?" Shepherd snitched another fry.
Caldwell let it go without comment. "When I'm not in the gym getting myself beaten to a pulp?" He took a large bite of his sandwich, chewed and swallowed before saying, "Shadowing him, mostly."
"Utter boredom." Caldwell finished off the first half of his sandwich and started on the second. "Broken by moments of sheer terror."
"Sounds familiar. I take it he's having his men set traps for you." Shepherd stole another fry and washed it down with the last of his beer.
"And launch surprise attacks." It was a new stage in Jack Arthurs' training: take what he'd learned in the gym and on the firing range and apply it to 'real life,' or something that passed for it.
"How are you doing?"
Caldwell shrugged. "Not bad." The first time, he'd dropped his gun like a rank amateur. They hadn't let him live it down yet, though he hadn't missed a step since, putting down every attempt, including one that hadn't even gotten started before he pulled the plug.
"And how's your shoulder?" Shepherd asked, as if aware of the twinge Caldwell's shoulder had given when he shrugged.
"Not bad," Caldwell said again. Shepherd nodded, but Caldwell wasn't fool enough to think he'd convinced the other man.
"You know." Shepherd took the last of Caldwell's fries. "That boredom isn't going to go away. In fact, it's going to be your perpetual state once you start shadowing Jim."
"I certainly hope so." Caldwell washed down the last of his sandwich with what remained of his beer.
"You won't once you've been mired in it for a month or two." Shepherd put the empties and Caldwell's cleared plate on the tray.
"I'll take that chance." He didn't think he was likely to be bored around Marshall. In fact, he was afraid his biggest problem was going to be learning how to watch Marshall without watching him. Caldwell got up from the table and slumped back down on the couch.
"Here." Shepherd stood to Caldwell's left, offering him a second bottle of beer, already opened. "I thought so," he said, when Caldwell, knowing he couldn't possibly hold even the relatively small weight of a beer bottle with his left hand just then, reached across his body to take it with the right. "Take off your jacket and let me do something about that."
"Me?" Shepherd said, mimicking Caldwell's tone of voice. "You see anyone else? Come on," he said, giving Caldwell a nudge, "on the floor."
"Sit on the floor so I can get at your shoulders. If you think I'm going to stand here wrecking my back, you can think again." He snorted when Caldwell didn't move. "You going to turn down the chance to get the knots out of your shoulder? I'm considered to be a pretty good masseur. Just ask Jim."
"President Marshall?" Caldwell settled cross-legged on the floor in front of the couch. He set his beer on the coffee table so he could shrug out of his jacket.
"He was just Jim then, political aspirations not even a twinkle in his eye." Shepherd settled on the couch behind him. "Carried all his worries and woes right about here," he said with a light touch to a point just between Caldwell's shoulderblades. "Get it just right and he'd turn into a purring pussycat. Probably still does. Take this off."
With a muttered apology, Caldwell slithered out of the shoulder holster. He'd been aware of it every moment at first, aware of the weight of the gun that hung at his side. By now, however, it was second nature, as was transferring that gun to the bedside table every night. He put it on the coffee table and picked up his beer again.
Shepherd started in lightly at first, careful over the new skin of Caldwell's scars. His hands slid and caught and slid again on Caldwell's dress shirt, rubbing warmth and ease into more than just Caldwell's damaged shoulder. He hadn't realized just how much tension he was carrying around in his neck and upper back.
"Be easier without your shirt," Shepherd said, but he didn't ask Caldwell to take it off. His hands didn't even pause. After a while, he said, "I suppose you could read while Jim's working." Caldwell, his chin nearly on his chest, took a moment to catch up.
"Don't think that would look very good," he mumbled without moving. He wanted another drink of his beer, but he wanted this more.
"How about books on tape?"
"Another ear piece?" He'd only recently stopped pulling the earbud of the comm unit loose at inopportune moments.
Shepherd's fingers dug deeply, and Caldwell grunted. The other man paused for a moment, as if to see if it was pain, before doing it again. It did hurt, but in a good way, and Caldwell wasn't about to do anything to stop it. "You were trained in photo recognition. Perhaps--"
"It's hardly my area of expertise, Shep," Caldwell interrupted. He lifted his head enough to manage a drink of his beer. Between his fatigue, the beer, and Shepherd's talented hands, he was getting very close to crashing. "You've got a hundred guys already on the job who're better than I am. Besides, Jack Arthurs has made it clear I need to keep up on the 'Watch' files."
Men in positions of power were irresistible to lunatics, and Marshall seemed to attract more than most. According to Arthurs, there had been a surge of letters and threats following the incident on Air Force One. Marshall's brutal heroism, while putting many terrorist factions off, at least for the time being, had had the opposite effect on the lunatic fringe. There were now that many more power-hungry loonies out there jonesing for the president. The secret service had files on all of them.
He could hear the wince in Shepherd's voice. "A little light reading, eh?" His hands paused on Caldwell's shoulders, the warmth of them seeping through his shirt and abused muscles. "Look, Ryan. When it gets to be too much for you, don't forget you've got somewhere to go. My door's always open." Now there was a smile in his voice. "And if it isn't, you've got the key." He'd given it to Caldwell when he first started being dragged back to the office at a moment's notice. Just in case they'd agreed to meet and Shepherd wasn't able to let Caldwell know he'd been called away.
Caldwell let out a long breath. "It may all be moot. Hell, Arthurs may not pass me."
|An explosion rocked the limousine.
"Down, sir!" Caldwell pushed the president to the floor with his left hand and drew his gun with his right. He crouched over the other man and listened intently to the shouts and gunfire outside, gauging their intent and progress. He wasn't startled when the first blow fell on the side window. The glass was bulletproof, but it wouldn't hold indefinitely against a direct attack.
When it shattered, he dove down to shield his charge from flying glass, then popped up again to fire at the first face that appeared in the window. That man reeled back, was replaced with another, who Caldwell managed to clip before he could duck back out of sight.
Silence. Caldwell could feel his muscles jerking with tension. The snub barrel of a submachine gun advanced through the window. Caldwell took a long breath. No chance against that, but if he could get outside the car.... He held up his gun, dangling from the trigger guard, in surrender. A hand reached through the window and snatched it from him, then hauled on the inside door handle.
The submachine gun retreated from the window, then advanced again around the opening door. A harsh voice told them to come out. Caldwell went first, keeping the president behind him. It was very bright outside the limo, and he blinked quickly to refocus his eyes.
There were half a dozen men, most of them on his side of the car. They were wearing visored helmets and bulky bodysuits. He acted before the president had cleared the door, whirling on the man with the submachine gun. Caldwell grabbed the man's arm with his right hand, forcing the weapon skyward, and powered his left fist in low to the man's midriff. The assassin doubled up and Caldwell brought his fist up into the man's throat. Caldwell grabbed the gun as the man fell, choking, and sprayed bullets at the others even as he pushed the president down and shoved him under the car.
Too soon the bullets ran out.
Two assailants left. They launched themselves from the cars they'd taken shelter behind. Caldwell dropped the gun and stepped away from the limo to take them. He got his shoulder into the midriff of the right attacker and tossed him over the roof of the car. The man on the left didn't hesitate. His fist caught Caldwell at the bottom of the rib cage, driving the wind out of him. Gasping, his vision graying, he grabbed his attacker, letting the other man support his wobbly knees. Caldwell fought dirty, holding the struggling man close with his left arm while he put all the strength of his body into the blows delivered by his right fist.
He dropped the limp body of the second attacker in time to take the flying tackle of the first, who launched himself from the roof of the limo. He got in one good blow as they fell and another once they hit the ground, though the man's weight drove the rest of the breath from him. The man reared up to crouch over him, and Caldwell brought both knees up into the man's chest, threw off the gasping weight, and struggled to his feet, his hands loose and open at his sides, ready for whatever came next.
A klaxon sounded, and the room lights mercifully dimmed as the lights in the observation booth came up. Gasping for breath, Caldwell turned to face the crowd gathered in the booth. He hadn't realized there was such a large audience. His eyes quickly sought out the only man whose reaction mattered.
Marshall was scowling.
The pain struck Caldwell harder than any of the blows he'd taken. He took in a labored breath as he watched Marshall descend from the observation booth, Vice President Kathryn Bennett and Secretary of Defense Walter Dean at his heels. Grace and Alice were there, Alice clinging to her mother's hand as if she'd mistaken this for the real thing. Lloyd Shepherd gave Caldwell a thumbs up, but he barely saw it. His attention was all for the man, elected only days ago to a second term, for whom he'd spent the last few months perpetually bruised and exhausted.
Marshall reached Caldwell. "Major Caldwell. Jack," he acknowledged as Jack Arthurs climbed out from under the limo, but his eyes never left Caldwell. "Next time, Major, give me a gun." He smiled suddenly, and Caldwell could breathe again. Marshall turned to Jack Arthurs. "For god's sake, Jack, couldn't you do a better job of playing me? Since when do I hide under cars?"
"If you had any sense, you would. We're here to protect you, Jim, not follow you around while you beat up the bad guys."
Marshall smiled. "Looks like the major would do a pretty good job, then, don't you agree?"
Arthurs looked Caldwell over critically. "Having trouble breathing, Caldwell?"
"Two blows to the chest'll do that to you, sir." But he was able to get the entire sentence out on one breath, so he wasn't that badly off.
Arthurs grinned. "It's a good thing my men were wearing protective gear," he said as they straggled to their feet, wiping blue paint off their visors where they'd been "shot." Donato hauled off his helmet, setting his cropped blond hair on end, and coughed into his fist. He was the one Caldwell had gotten with both knees. "That blow to the throat would have killed Anthony here." Anthony, his black hair matted down by the helmet, shot Caldwell a proud grin. He was the one who'd shown Caldwell that move. Arthurs looked back to Marshall. "Yes, Mr. President, I believe he'll do."
"Good." Marshall clapped a hand to Caldwell's shoulder and gave him a shake, grinning like a proud father. "What do you think, Walter, Kath?"
Secretary of Defense Walter Dean scowled at Caldwell. "You know what I think about this, Mr. President." Marshall waved that away, obviously a hotly and long-debated issue. Dean's scowl slowly transmuted into something less antagonistic. "But if you're determined to do it, I'll certainly admit you could do worse."
"Talk about damning with faint praise." Bennett smiled at Caldwell and reached to shake his hand. It felt odd, the first time in twenty years he'd shaken someone's hand without the bulk of his Air Force academy ring on his finger. "If you want my opinion, Jim, I think if anyone can get past him...." She shrugged meaningfully.
"Right." Marshall thumped Caldwell on the shoulder again and turned to the rest of the observers. "All right, people, you heard it. Major Caldwell is now officially a member of my close protection team. You have my permission to make his life hell." He grinned at Caldwell and ruffled his hair roughly.
As the others closed in, Shep and Grace shaking his hand,
Alice throwing her arms around him for a quick hug, Caldwell could feel
the grin that stretched ear to ear. He could neither do anything about
it, nor want to.
His room, when he finally got back to it, was bare. It looked like it had when he'd first seen it: all the personality of a hotel room and just as many personal touches.
Caldwell turned to find Shepherd leaning against the doorframe. He swung back to look at the stripped room. "Did I move when I wasn't looking?"
"Jim had all your belongings shifted to your new quarters while you were putting on that demonstration." Shepherd twitched his head toward the hall. "Shall we?"
Caldwell followed him out and down the hall, feeling more than a little at sea. "He arranged it before the test?"
"Yeah." Shepherd shot him a sidelong look. "You don't think it ever occurred to him you might not be up to snuff? Jack Arthurs has been giving Jim regular reports on your progress. Today was merely a formality. To prove to Dean and Bennett -- and you, incidentally -- that you could do it." They were silent while Caldwell digested that. He recognized the route they were taking -- when he'd last walked it, Marshall had had to slow down to accommodate his healing lungs. Now, he matched Shepherd stride for stride. "Where, if I might ask," Shepherd asked suddenly, "is the rest of your stuff? Surely you've got more than the pittance they found in that room," he prompted when Caldwell didn't answer.
"Storage." He'd packed it all away before boarding Air Force One to Russia for a four month leave that had been summarily revoked two days after he got there. Things had gone from bad to worse from there, and he hadn't spared a thought since for the meager belongings stuffed away in a storage unit, except to wish for the copy of Twelfth Night he'd marked up during his short college career.
"Well, get it shipped over here," Shepherd said bluntly. "No point in paying for storage. You'll be living here the next four years; might as well make yourself at home."
"Living where, exactly?" Caldwell asked as they approached the door to the president's quarters. Donato stood outside. Caldwell noticed he had a trace of blue paint on the rim of his ear, which meant he'd been hit during the test, but failed to go down. It didn't surprise Caldwell -- Donato was responsible for a good many of the bruises he'd suffered the last month. The secret service agent wasn't happy to have his authority usurped by an outsider, and he wasn't shy about getting his licks in in the name of training.
"Here." Shepherd opened the door. He gave Caldwell's shoulder a nudge when he hesitated.
"Caldwell." Marshall rose from the couch, coming forward with hand outstretched. "You took your time. Get lost?"
Right down the rabbit hole, Caldwell thought as his hand was taken in a firm grip.
"Found him in his old room." Shepherd plopped casually down on the couch Marshall had vacated. "Didn't it occur to you to mention he'd be moving?" He picked up the remote and flicked on the television.
"That was your job," Marshall said. "No shoes on the coffee table." He gave Shepherd's feet, which had just come to rest there, a shove. Shepherd heeled off his shoes and put his feet right back on the coffee table. Marshall was grinning as he came back to Caldwell. "Come on, let me give you the five cent tour."
"You know, you're going to have to stop calling me that eventually," Marshall said as he guided Caldwell to the first of the three doors that led out of the family room, his hand warm at the small of Caldwell's back.
Marshall laughed. He pushed open the door. "Grace's and my room." It was light, airy, feminine. The furniture was Queen Anne, Caldwell thought, though he wasn't by any means an expert. At any rate, it was delicately carved out of light woods and looked much too fine to actually be used. It seemed a very comfortable room, but not at all in Marshall's line. The president pulled the door shut and moved Caldwell on to the next room. The faint thump of music drifted through the closed door.
Marshall knocked and called, "Honey?" A moment later, the door was flung open and Alice stood in the doorway -- or bounced rather, moving with the music that got significantly louder when the door opened. She grinned widely when she saw Caldwell.
"Ryan!" She grabbed his hand and tugged. "Come see." It seemed to Caldwell a typical teenager's room. There were feminine touches here and there -- a couple of porcelain dolls sitting daintily on a shelf, the ruffled frills of the bed's canopy -- and some that were less so. Caldwell blinked at the posters tacked to the walls and remembered suddenly how Alice had screamed when the parajumper leapt off Air Force One with her. It hadn't been a fearful scream. "Look," Alice directed, giving Caldwell's hand a strong tug.
He found himself looking at an elaborate sound system, out of which music he didn't quite recognize -- not one of those boy bands, thank god, but certainly suiting her teenage tastes -- poured. The base thumped so strongly he could feel it through his feet.
"Dad got it for me," she told him over the music as she proudly surveyed the stereo system. "He said it was a reelection gift."
Caldwell had been so busy training the election crept up on him without warning. If it hadn't been for Shepherd, he'd have failed even to cast his vote. That night, Shepherd had hauled him to a large room where the president and his staff had gathered to await the results. Caldwell played backgammon with Shepherd for hours while Dan Rather blabbed away on the television and the president slept on the other end of the couch. It had been a foregone conclusion from the beginning and turned into a landslide before it was over. Marshall had slumped down in his corner of the couch, slipped off his shoes, and silently crashed, one foot touching Caldwell's thigh.
At one point, Caldwell had extracted himself and gone to find the facilities. When he returned, he found Marshall sitting up, not talking to anyone, but awake and alert. He returned the nod Marshall gave him and retook his place on the couch. Within ten minutes, Marshall was asleep again, that foot once again just brushing Caldwell's thigh. Suddenly Caldwell understood, and that understanding swelled almost painfully in his chest. From that moment, he cut his intake of liquids so he wouldn't have to excuse himself again.
"What do you think? Cool, huh?" Alice grinned at him, her body moving, apparently unconsciously, to the beat of the music.
"Cool," Caldwell agreed. He glanced toward the doorway, where Marshall stood, his hands in his pockets and one shoulder braced against the jamb. Alice grabbed both Caldwell's hands and tried to get him to dance, and Marshall grinned.
"Leave him be, honey," Marshall said. "He's mine for now."
"Aw, Dad!" But she grinned at Caldwell again and gave him a quick hug. He still wasn't used to her lightning-fast displays of affection, and especially didn't know how to respond with her father looking on. "I'm glad you're here."
He patted her shoulder. "Me too."
Marshall crooked his finger, and Caldwell went with him. When Marshall swung the door shut, the sound level dropped dramatically. "Soundproofing." Marshall smiled. "You think I'd get her a stereo like that if it wasn't? Now this," he said as he guided Caldwell to the third door, "is your room."
Caldwell looked uncertainly to Shepherd, but the Chief of Staff was slumped on the couch, his eyes fixed on the television. Caldwell couldn't tell if he was actually concentrating on it, or merely pretending to be; either way, he wasn't going to come to Caldwell's rescue. "Sir--"
"Just take a look and see if you like it," Marshall ordered, pushing the door open and going in.
Caldwell hesitated in the doorway. Though the room was small, the sparse, perfectly coordinated furnishings made it look more spacious than it was. The carpet was a deep blue, the bed, nightstand, and bureau solid pieces of heavy dark wood. It was plain, comfortable, masculine. It was the room he'd have imagined for Marshall.
"We had the furniture moved in from another room. If you don't like it--"
"I like it."
Marshall smiled, a shade too triumphantly, and Caldwell had the distinct impression the president had just won some argument. "Grace has been using the room for her office, but there are plenty of other rooms in the White House suitable for that. And before you protest, she likes her new digs." He glared briefly at Caldwell. "Your clothes are in the closet, toiletries in the bathroom." Marshall indicated a door that led off from one corner of the room. "I'm afraid you'll be sharing it with Alice." Marshall's mouth shrugged for him. "Everything has locks, and she's been warned on penalty of permanent grounding not to disturb you."
Marshall sat on the bed, drew up one leg under him, and looked around, as if he'd never seen the room before. "Should be enough space for the rest of your stuff when you get it sent over. It's not much, but--"
"It's wonderful, sir." Caldwell took a few tentative steps into the room. "I don't know if--"
"It's soundproofed as well," Marshall said, before Caldwell could voice his uncertainty. It was probably just as well; the only cogent reason Caldwell could come up with just then was that he didn't know if he could survive living in such close quarters with a man who attracted him as terribly as Marshall did. "Alice's music shouldn't bother you. All the bedrooms are soundproofed, so you can watch tv as late as you like without disturbing anyone, though you might find one or more of us joining you if you do. There's a small fridge and a microwave tucked away in the dining area, if you get the late-night munchies. Just tell the kitchen staff what you want and they'll stock it."
"Sir," Caldwell broke in when it looked like Marshall was going to go on. "I'm... I'm grateful for your generosity, please don't think I'm not, but I thought I'd be--"
"Outside, like Donato?" Marshall's mouth quirked. "That was the whole point, Caldwell. To have someone inside." He glanced away, but Caldwell rather doubted Marshall saw the brilliant blue day outside the window. After a moment, he turned back. "Look, Caldwell. Ryan." There was something like a question in his eyes. Caldwell nodded. "If anything happens, the secret service is the first line of defense. First, second, fifty-first. They'll take care of it. You are my last line of defense. If, god forbid, anything like what happened on Air Force One should ever happen again, I don't want to be in it alone. I want a man with me I can rely on. I need you there. All this," he said with a gesture that somehow encompassed Caldwell's struggles the last few months as well as the First Family's suite, "is to guarantee that you will be there."
"But I didn't do anything, sir!"
Marshall shook his head, and Caldwell thought that, like Shepherd several months ago, he was going to tick off a list embarrassing for the undeserved credit it gave him. But all Marshall said was, "You were there."
Caldwell remembered sitting in that briefing room with nearly fifty people -- reporters, flight crew, senior staff, secret service, ranking officers -- all waiting fearfully for something to happen. How terribly like a kite he'd felt, scudding across the sky with no one holding the string. And how it had all changed when Marshall burst into the room. All of a sudden, someone was holding the other end of the string. Even flying a jumbo jet under enemy fire had not seemed outside his abilities with Marshall beside him.
Perhaps it was the same for Marshall.
Caldwell looked up and was caught in Marshall's eyes. "All right, sir," he said without breaking the connection. He was aware of Marshall's slow smile, though he wasn't sure if it was on his lips or only in his eyes. Nor did he know how long he stood there, trapped by that enticing smile.
"Getting settled in?"
Marshall released Caldwell with a slow blink. They both turned to where Grace stood in the doorway. She smiled at her husband as she shrugged off her suit jacket, then turned to Caldwell.
He cleared his throat, feeling uncomfortably flushed and aware he was, once again, on the verge of arousal. He'd worked out everything in these last weeks of training except how he could possibly deal with this helpless attraction. "Yes, thank you."
"Good." She nodded briskly. "You must be starving after all that activity. I've ordered dinner -- hope you like pot roast." With that, she vanished, but Caldwell could hear her knocking on her daughter's door to announce the arrival of the food and chatting with Shepherd while the waiter laid out the meal. The suite door closed with a soft thud and she called, "Come along you two."
"The voice of authority speaks." Marshall stood up from the bed. "You ready for this?"
Marshall clapped a hand to Caldwell's shoulder and used it to steer him out to the dining area. Caldwell took a place at the oval table opposite Shepherd, who grinned at him as he shook a napkin open in his lap and dug into his first meal with the First Family.
|"The preeminent American holiday, and the American president
doesn't get to celebrate it." Marshall hadn't lifted his head from the
paperwork he studied. Most people would have assumed he was talking to
himself. Caldwell knew otherwise. Everyone else who dealt with the
president might forget Caldwell was there, but Marshall never did.
"There's a Thanksgiving banquet, isn't there?" Caldwell said from his usual chair in the corner. He was glad of the excuse to take a break from the file he'd been reading. The only positive thing about the sick bastard who'd written these letters was the fact that he was currently incarcerated in an asylum for the criminally insane and the secret service would be immediately notified should he ever get out. Marshall had never read these letters, or any of the 'fan mail' he got. Caldwell was determined to see that it stayed that way.
"Thanksgiving's supposed to be a family holiday," Marshall growled as he scrawled his signature across the bottom of the page. "A state banquet with several thousand people is not a family occasion."
Caldwell ought, by now, to be slowly starting to settle in. Only he'd felt settled from the first day he walked into the Oval Office at Marshall's back. Everything about being with Marshall felt comfortable, familiar. As if Caldwell were merely stepping into the place he was born to occupy. Even the desire he felt for Marshall felt right. As did suffering it in silence.
Caldwell was given no free time to speak of. He honestly didn't mind, except for the loss of Shepherd's exclusive company. Their quiet evenings in Shepherd's White House apartment were a thing of the past. Even that loss was mitigated, however, as Shepherd was around a great deal, dropping in like a neighbor with an open invitation and making use of the Marshalls' superior entertainment system. Marshall seemed to take it for granted, and joined his old friend whenever possible. Caldwell had watched parts of two football games with Marshall and Shepherd, sitting between them on the couch when their rival favorites were playing and getting rather too much popcorn down the neck of his sweater. There were world leaders who'd be appalled at how childish the great American president could act when he let his guard down.
Caldwell had almost gotten used to finding fuscha eye shadow and teal fingernail polish propped against the backsplash in the bathroom. Though Marshall had seemed most worried that Alice might bother Caldwell, Caldwell's greatest concern was that Alice might feel uncomfortable in her own home. He was very careful, if he heard any sound of movement or running water from the bathroom, not to even try the handle. For her part, Alice was as good as her father had promised she'd be.
Caldwell had been a nine-days wonder when he took up his post, though thankfully the press seemed to find him as faceless as any secret service agent. It was the people Marshall dealt with on a daily basis who really became aware of Caldwell. Especially when they discovered that, when Marshall had closed-door meetings, Caldwell was invariably on the inside. After the initial brouhaha, things quieted when it became clear that Marshall had no intention of backing down. It took the better part of three weeks, but Caldwell soon found that, to everyone but Marshall, he was as good as invisible.
"You have any family, Major?" Marshall asked, as if he didn't already know most everything about Caldwell's life. Jack Arthurs had seen to that, and a more thorough vetting had never been done.
"We used to get together every Thanksgiving with Grace's family and mine." Marshall swung his chair around and stared out the window. "A proper Thanksgiving dinner, with football games after -- the sort you play, Caldwell, not the sort you watch. All the family together to eat and talk and sleep and eat some more. It was a bigger holiday with us than Christmas." He swung back around and shot Caldwell a wistful smile. "That's a proper Thanksgiving."
"Yes, sir," Caldwell said quietly.
As Marshall went back to his work, Caldwell started plotting.
There was nothing he could do about Thanksgiving Day itself -- the president was booked solid. But Friday was relatively free, and once Caldwell got Shepherd on it, it was cleared entirely. Barring a national emergency, the day was the president's.
Marshall, uninformed of the changes to his schedule, took advantage of the few hours in the morning he knew he had free to play racketball. Caldwell was just as happy he did, though it meant he was run off his feet trying to keep up with the man. If it kept Marshall away from his suite for a while, all the better.
Donato escorted them to the gym and back, as usual. He was the day man, Anthony the night, except when one or the other of them had a day off. Caldwell had struck up a friendly relationship with Anthony, but Donato still held him at a stiff distance. He opened the suite door for Marshall and stepped back, ignoring Caldwell, also as usual.
Marshall stopped dead just inside the door.
"Happy Thanksgiving, Dad!" Alice threw herself into her father's arms which, despite his shock, closed tightly around her.
"Well, Jim," Shepherd said from his usual end of the couch, "are you going to let Ryan through the door or stand there gaping?"
With a muttered apology, Marshall shuffled out of the way, Alice clinging to him like a limpet. Caldwell came in and shut the door gently behind him.
"It's not the whole family," he said apologetically. He hadn't been able to manage that on such short notice. In fact, aside from the vice president (who, Caldwell was surprised to learn, was quite happy to make herself free the day after Thanksgiving for a 'family' dinner with the president), there was no one who did not regularly take dinner with the First Family whenever possible. Grace and Alice, of course. And Shepherd, whose constant attendance at the White House Caldwell knew to be the fallout from his divorce, finalized a few months before the disaster on Air Force One. He'd subsequently been summarily adopted by the Marshall family, and Caldwell had seen nothing to suggest that their acceptance of his near-constant presence was anything but genuine.
"It's wonderful," Marshall said, his eyes on the over-laden table.
The food had been the easiest part. With Grace's help, Caldwell had made up a menu, and Shepherd ensured the White House kitchen delivered it on time and to order. The table was covered with every Thanksgiving dish Caldwell remembered from his own childhood and a few he'd never had the chance to sample.
"If you've still got the energy to play football later, sir," Caldwell said, "I'll do my best to match you."
"Watch it, Caldwell." Marshall shot him a feral grin. "I may just take you up on that."
"Food first," Grace decreed, transferring the last of the serving dishes from the cart the kitchen had sent up. She frowned when Caldwell started for the door. "Ryan." Grace pulled out the chair cattycorner from hers.
"But, I thought--" He'd thought he'd go next door, where a weight room had been set up for him, close to the president, and work out for a while. His job was done. He'd delivered a Thanksgiving for Marshall. A family affair, at which he didn't belong.
Marshall scowled at him. "Sit, Major."
They took their places at the table, Alice disengaging herself from her father only once he'd reached his seat, and for some time the conversation dwelled on the food and the day. Marshall was smiling ear to ear as he ladled gravy onto his potatoes.
"It may be a day late and a few relatives short, but this is a real Thanksgiving," he proclaimed. He'd been fed many gourmet and exotic dishes the day before, but none had had the impact of this simple meal. "Who do I have to thank for this?"
"Ryan," Shepherd said, at the same time that Caldwell said, "All of us."
"It was Ryan's idea," Alice said. He frowned at her and she stuck her tongue out at him.
"Children," Marshall warning, laughing. "Excellent idea, Caldwell," he said, spooning a heaping serving of candied yams on his plate. "Thank you."
"Yes." Kath Bennett smiled the smile that had helped get Marshall elected despite the 'disadvantage' of a female running mate. She still intimidated Caldwell a bit, and he wasn't sure if she quite approved of him, but then he hadn't come to know her in the crucible of Air Force One, nor she him. "Thank you. This is a wonderful idea. Why didn't we think of it before, Jim?"
"We didn't have the major around to take charge," Marshall said as Caldwell blushed.
It happened when they were on seconds. Caldwell was handing the gravy boat across to Shepherd when Grace passed him the candied yams. The hot pad slipped from under the dish as she handed it over, and Caldwell didn't notice until the weight of the dish forced him to shift it from his weak left hand to the right. He set it down quickly with a hiss.
"Oh Ryan!" Grace gasped, "I'm sorry. Did you burn yourself?"
"I don't think so," he murmured, rubbing the fingers of his right hand together.
"Ryan." She wrapped her fingers around his left wrist and turned his hand over. The burns were already reddening. "Damn," she breathed. "Come on."
He was vaguely aware of the startled and concerned looks of the others as Grace hauled him up from the table and led him into the Marshall's bedroom and from there into the bathroom. He followed willingly, the strength of her grip on his wrist convincing proof that she'd have dragged him thence if he hadn't.
"Grace, I can--"
"Hush." She spun on the cold water tap and held his hand under it. "Men," she muttered under her breath, "I swear you could be bleeding out of every orifice and still say you're fine." Grace uncurled his fingers under the cold spray and studied the raised mark, quickly turning an angry red, that crossed the base of all four fingers. There was a lighter mark on his thumb, which had been hooked over the cooler top rim of the dish. "Why didn't you let go of the dish when it burned you?"
"I didn't realize it had," he said, his voice steady only because he was so disquieted no emotion could get through. He hadn't thought the numbness went so deep he could hurt himself without knowing it. The cold of the tap water should have hurt as much as the burn, but he couldn't feel either pain. Couldn't feel anything but the pressure of her fingers on his wrist. Caldwell's heart pounded dizzily. "There's some... loss of sensation," he said faintly.
Her eyes were warm with concern. "From the wound to your shoulder?"
Marshall's voice startled him badly. "Why the hell didn't you tell me?" He was standing in the doorway, his expression boding ill for someone. Behind him, Shepherd gave Caldwell a commiserating look.
"Because, sir, it doesn't interfere with the execution of my duties." If there'd been anywhere to go, Caldwell would have backed up then. He hadn't seen that particular look since the plane.
"To hell with your duties!" Marshall snarled. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"Ease off, Jim," Shepherd said softly.
Marshall rounded on Shepherd. "Did you know about this?"
"It's in his file, Jim. That bullet blew a huge chunk of his shoulder to the four winds. You've got to expect that kind of damage to have an effect."
"It's just surface numbness," Caldwell said quickly. "I can still protect--"
"I don't give a--"
"We know, Ryan," Grace quietly overrode her husband. She turned off the water and blotted Caldwell's hand gently with a towel. His skin felt strangely stiff, perhaps from the cold. When it was dry, she bent to study his palm, as if she were going to tell his fortune. "No great harm done," she decreed, smiling at him. "I'd say it'll probably be painful for a bit, but...."
His lips twitched. "It won't."
All the air was sucked out of the bathroom when Marshall came through the door. Though spacious, it wasn't really made to hold three adults. That was the excuse, at least, that Caldwell gave himself. Then Marshall took Caldwell's hand from his wife and all Caldwell's excuses went out the window.
"Honey, I think there's some antibiotic cream in the medicine cabinet." Marshall didn't release Caldwell's hand while Grace looked for the tube. Nor did his eyes leave Caldwell's face. Caldwell found himself held in Marshall's gaze like a mouse in a hawk's. Grace squeezed some of the cream on Caldwell's hand, and Marshall spread it with a gentle touch Caldwell wished he could feel.
"There," Marshall murmured. "Guess I'll just have to keep a closer eye on you from now on."
"Our dinner's getting cold." Marshall left the bathroom, taking all the air with him. Grace patted Caldwell's cheek and followed, leaving him feeling rather as if he'd been struck by a train.
Shepherd stayed, and his quizzical look was more than Caldwell could deal with at that moment. He let his gaze stray to the framed architectural print that adorned the wall beside the door. After a moment, Shepherd wandered casually into the bathroom, his hands in his pockets. He bent to look at Caldwell's palm and whistled. "Ouch. You're going to get that ointment all over the place, you know. There's probably some...." He rummaged in the medicine cabinet, muttering to himself. "Here." Shepherd came out with a roll of gauze and some tape. "Figures Jim wouldn't think of it. Not until you were getting that greasy crap all over his couch. Then he'd notice." Shepherd kept talking as his deft fingers made quick work of the job. Caldwell let the words wash over him, thankful for the other man's consideration. "There, good as new."
Shepherd tucked the supplies away again. He cocked an eyebrow and gave Caldwell one of those crooked smiles. "I told you before," he said with a gentle shake of the head, "don't let him steamroll you."
With that, he too wandered out, leaving Caldwell to lean
against the counter and shake in every limb. After a few minutes, he
went back. He didn't want Alice to worry about him.
Marshall had been true to his word, challenging them all to a game of touch football once the food settled. After some bickering about teams, the Marshall family took on Caldwell, Bennett and Shepherd, despite the latter's predictions that they were going to lose and lose badly. They had, of course. But they had fun in the process, and Caldwell gained a new respect for Kathryn Bennett's grasp of strategy, especially sneak attacks.
Cold from playing football in the snow, dead tired and aching in every joint, Caldwell slumped on the couch, his legs stretched out in front of him. Bennett had thanked them all for a lovely day and taken herself off home. She'd hesitated a moment before leaving, and there was a wistfulness in her eyes that Caldwell thought, strangely enough, he understood. No one not insane could really wish they'd been on Air Force One that day. And yet.... They -- the Marshalls and Shepherd and Caldwell -- shared something no one else did. It drew them together -- subtle cords of nightmare and heroism and need -- with a solidarity unmatched even in blood relations. In a way, this had been a family holiday, and Kath Bennett had been the odd man out. If Caldwell had known how to apologize for that, he would have.
Soon after, Shepherd had headed off, much to Caldwell's surprise, saying something about a date (which Caldwell suspected was with a hot shower and a good book), and the Marshalls had disappeared into the master bedroom for some family time.
Leaving Caldwell alone. He knew he was falling asleep where he sat, the television droning monotonously in the background. He ought to get up and go to his room. He ought....
He became slowly aware of a warm weight on his chest.
Groggy, he brought his right hand up and found hair, soft, long, feminine. He jerked suddenly awake.
"You always wake up like that?" Alice asked.
Caldwell slid carefully out from under her. He'd managed to get almost horizontal while he slept without actually stretching out on the couch and his back gave a nasty twinge as he leaned hard against the armrest in an effort to put some space between them. She crossed her legs under her and sat beside him, giving him enough space to sit more comfortably. Her eyes were steady on him and far too curious. Caldwell remembered what Shepherd had said about teenage crushes and winced.
"What the hell were you doing?" If her father had seen them a moment ago....
Alice wrapped a lock of hair around her index finger, not in the least fazed by his tone of voice. "Listening to your heart. It really is on the wrong side."
Caldwell rubbed a hand over his face. "Who told you about that?"
"Dad. I asked him why the medic on Liberty 24 was so weirded, and why every doctor in the hospital wanted to examine you. They sure were excited."
"It's a rare condition." He was glad he hadn't been conscious for all the poking and prodding. He didn't ask Alice how her father had known about it -- even if Marshall hadn't thought to check with the Air Force, he could no doubt have used his influence to get a peek at Caldwell's medical records. He'd probably done it before his daughter's curiosity got the better of her. It didn't take a genius to realize that Caldwell should have died from Gibs' first shot and start wondering why he hadn't. "Just had to check for yourself, did you?"
"Mm-hmm." She rocked a little where she sat, humming a tune he didn't quite recognize. The television chattered to itself as he watched her, trying to figure out what was going through her mind. He was doomed to failure and knew it. She picked up his right hand and played with his fingers, rubbing the white indentation on the fourth finger. "What happened to your ring?"
"I took it off."
He hesitated a moment, then told her the truth. He hadn't begun by lying to her and saw no reason to start now. "It's too big. If I had to hit someone, I'd probably hurt myself as much as them." In his old job, the daily odds of having to hit someone were pretty much nil. Now, however....
"Oh." She matched their hands up and studied the way his dwarfed hers in width, though her fingers were nearly as long as his. She'd have lovely slender hands when she grew up. "What did you do with it?"
For answer, he slipped the fingers of his left hand into his collar, snagged the soft cord that hung around his neck, and pulled the ring out to lie on top of his sweater.
Alice leaned comfortably against his shoulder and studied it, turning it this way and that so it caught the light. "Do you still dream about the plane?" she asked, so softly he almost didn't hear her. She didn't take her eyes off the ring.
"Yes," he said, just as softly.
"They wanted me to talk to a shrink."
"And did you?"
She shrugged and slipped the ring onto her fingers until she found one it fit: her thumb. "He was a pain. He kept asking me 'and how did that make you feel?'"
Caldwell smiled. "And how did that make you feel?" She whacked his chest with the back of her hand and he rewarded her with a muffled "oof."
"Stupid. Like I was talking to myself and not listening. How did he think it made me feel? I saw people--" She stopped abruptly and continued in a much lower tone of voice. "I saw people die. People I knew. People who were friends." Some of them, Caldwell realized, Alice had known for more than a quarter of her short life. "And I.... I...."
"You were glad it wasn't you. Or your mother. Or your father."
She nodded and wouldn't look up at him. Caldwell could see tears glimmering on her lashes.
"That's okay, you know," he said awkwardly. "It doesn't make you a monster. It just makes you human."
"He said Dad was a monster, just like him," she said abruptly. "Do you believe that?"
"If I did, I wouldn't work for him, and I wouldn't live here with him and you," Caldwell said calmly, though his heart was racing, "and I certainly wouldn't have voted for him." He expected her to smile at that, and she did, but it was a very brief one that he could barely see through the curtain of hair that had fallen around her face.
"Even though he's killed people too?" Alice turned his ring around and around on her thumb, wrapping the cord up with it. He reached to stop her before she choked him, but she'd already started it back the other way.
"If you mean that your father killed the terrorists, he was protecting you and your mother, and me, and everyone on that plane. A man has a right to defend himself when he's attacked." It felt odd, sitting there exchanging quiet confidences with Marshall's daughter. And it was awkward, keeping his hands on his thighs while she leaned against his shoulder. Caldwell wondered if he dared put his arm around her, but discarded it as too awkward. "And if you mean that your father killed people in Vietnam, that's probably true. He was a soldier, and a soldier follows orders."
"Even stupid ones?"
"Even stupid ones. He swore to follow his commanders' orders when he went to war, and even a good soldier doesn't always know the stupid orders from the smart ones."
She was silent for a time, her eyes never leaving his ring. "He said that Dad was still a murderer, even if he wore a tuxedo while he killed people with smart bombs."
Caldwell took a long breath that he knew she could feel. "Well, a president has to make a lot of hard decisions. Sometimes he doesn't know if they're the right ones. Sometimes nobody does. Now I don't know everything your father knew when he made those decisions, and neither do you, but I do know that your father is a good man, who will always try to make the right decisions."
She sighed and seemed to relax against him. "I think so, too."
"Good. Don't believe anything that terrorist told you, Alice. After all...." Caldwell leaned his weight a little against her, giving her a nudge. "He thought your father ran away and left you and your mother behind." He caught a glimpse of that smile again.
"You're better than the shrink."
"Did you tell him any of this?"
"No. He would've told my father."
"And I won't." He very carefully phrased it somewhere between question and statement.
"Nope." She held his ring up by the cord and watched it spin in the light. "I trust you."
"Thank you, Alice," Caldwell said gravely, "I will do my best to live up to that trust." He waited, thinking that now the subject was dealt with she'd wander off, but she remained leaning against him, playing with his ring. "Is there anything else you didn't tell the shrink?" he asked finally.
She squirmed, settled back against him, sighed. "He kissed me."
He was already well aware that he, in that particular tone of voice, was invariably Korshunov, and he could feel every muscle in his body tense at that. "On the lips?" he asked, making an effort to keep his voice steady.
"On the forehead." Alice leaned her head sideways until it rested on his shoulder, tucked against the curve of his neck. She had his ring clenched tightly in her fist. "It made me feel dirty," she whispered.
He managed to get his arm out from between them and wrapped it around her shoulders. "There is nothing," he said fiercely, "that anyone can ever do that will make you dirty. Nothing." Caldwell wished fervently that Korshunov wasn't already rotting in some Kazakhstan field; he'd like very much to take the bastard apart with his bare hands. "You haven't told your father this either, have you?"
"No." Barely audible.
"Alice, your father would never think that--"
"No." She shook herself and said, louder, "But he'd feel... guilty."
Caldwell closed his eyes and leaned his cheek against her soft hair. How did a twelve year old come to be so perceptive? "Maybe he would at that," he murmured.
Alice sat up after a minute, though most of her weight was still on his shoulder. She unclenched her fist and grimaced at the red marks his ring had left on her palm. "I wish you were still wearing this."
"Why's that?" He'd gotten lost in the workings of her mind again.
She shrugged against him and turned her face away, as if embarrassed. "The lights in the cockpit shone off it, every so often, when you and Dad were flying the plane. And when the sun came up it sparkled like crazy. Every time you lifted your hand to the microphone, it made little splatters of stars on the window. I guess you didn't notice."
"No, I can't say I did." Caldwell frowned, trying to work out what she was getting at.
Alice tucked her chin against her chest and stared at the ring, rubbing her index finger around the smooth inner surface of the wide band. She shrugged again. "It just makes me think of you, I guess."
He suddenly remembered something she'd said in the hospital. She'd told him that sometimes she dreamed that her father was killed and they all died. Or that Caldwell himself was killed and they all died. As if Marshall's death and his were synonymous. For some reason, she believed that Caldwell had been instrumental to her safety and that of her parents. No matter how false that impression was, if it gave her comfort....
Caldwell ducked his head and lifted the cord, dropping it over her head in the same motion. "Now you can think of me anytime you like."
Alice looked down at the ring hanging around her neck. "You're definitely better than the shrink." She flashed him a watery smile. Then she stuck the ring on her thumb and made a show of admiring it, obviously determined to shift the subject. "You're better than my tutor, too."
"Is that a request for help?"
"Well...." She dropped the ring and gave the cord a little swing, so it wrapped itself around her finger until the ring bounced against her nail and began to unwrap itself again.
"Tell you what. Every evening I'm here--" Which admittedly wasn't often, as he was only there when Marshall managed to make it home at a reasonable hour. "--we can work on whatever subject you want. Fair warning, though. You already know my French accent is atrocious."
"Yeah, but you're way better at math than I am."
"I should hope so." He made himself sound offended. "I studied it for quite a few more years."
They laughed together, Alice breaking off first. She cocked her head and silently studied the ring. He waited patiently, until she finally asked, "Ryan?"
"Can I listen to your heart again?"
He shifted, not as uncomfortable as when he'd woken, but.... "If you like," he said carefully. Caldwell lifted his hand from her shoulder when she bent to lay her head on his chest and rested it on the back of the couch. He closed his eyes and tried not to breathe too deeply.
"Would it be too much to ask what's going on here?"
"Oh Christ," Caldwell breathed. He wondered if Alice heard the sudden galloping of his heart before she popped to her feet and skipped over to her father. Caldwell pried his eyes open, though he would much rather die without seeing the look on Marshall's face.
"You're right, Dad," Alice exclaimed gaily. "His heart is in the wrong place."
Marshall's eyes trapped Caldwell's. After a moment, the president smiled. It went straight to Caldwell's groin. "Oh, I'd say it's in the right place all right. For him." Marshall turned his attention to his daughter. "And what's this?" he asked, hooking his finger under the cord to lift the ring. Marshall's quick glance at Caldwell confirmed that he recognized it.
"Ryan gave me his ring," she said proudly.
"Oh?" Marshall raised an eyebrow. He hadn't stopped smiling yet. "You know, honey, when I was your age, if a boy gave a girl his class ring, it meant they were going steady."
Marshall began to laugh uncontrollably. His mirth was contagious. Or perhaps it was the deeply offended look on Alice's face. She stamped around in a circle until Caldwell and her father finally stopped laughing, then stood looking at Marshall with her arms crossed and her chin lifted.
"I want a tv for Christmas," Alice said as if it were an ultimatum. There was a slight tic at the corner of her mouth, however, that suggested a smile trying to escape.
"What do you need that for? There's one right here," Marshall said, throwing his arm out to indicate the large screen television that had been muttering to itself unnoticed for quite some time now.
"I want it in my room." She stamped off, turning back at the door. "And a DVD player." She closed the door. It wasn't quite a slam.
Marshall stood looking after his only child, shaking his head slowly. "Give a mouse a cookie..." he said, almost to himself. When he turned to find Caldwell looking at him in some confusion, he smiled that self-deprecating smile that had won over so many hearts. "And he's gonna want a glass of milk. I never should have bought her that stereo."
Caldwell felt just relaxed enough to say, "No, sir."
Marshall crooked a finger at him. "Walk with me, will you?"
It was dark, stars popping through the velvet black sky like tiny peepholes into other worlds. Caldwell shoved his hands deep into his coat pockets and watched his breath steam in the night air. It was exceedingly odd to feel the cold on only one hand, but he'd begun to get used to it. And he knew now that he'd have to be careful of it. They strolled slowly through one of the rear gardens under the watchful eyes of several self-effacing secret service agents. No one who hadn't been around them for years, or trained by them, would have even known they were there.
Caldwell walked with Marshall in the dark winter garden. When Marshall finally spoke, the subject was not the one Caldwell expected. "How did you come to be on Air Force One that day?"
Startled, Caldwell said, "I was the only one available to interpret those photos of Iraqi troop movements on such short notice. Not that I'm an expert, sir, but they were desperate."
"Mm." It was clear Marshall knew that part already. "Hard to find good U.S. photo intel officers in Russia." He clasped his hands behind his back and rocked on his heels, staring up at the sky. "What no one seems to know is what you were doing in Russia."
Caldwell swallowed. After everything that had happened, Marshall was suspicious of him now? The sting went deep. When he didn't answer, Marshall went on.
"You took a leave of absence from the Air Force, stored everything you owned, let the lease on your apartment lapse, and took off for Russia. I've got to tell you, Secretary Dean was spitting over that, said you were part of some 'Rooskie' plot." Marshall's teeth gleamed in the moonlight. "Walter hasn't quite gotten used to being friends with Russia yet."
"I just needed some time, sir." So close to burning out he could smell the smoke, he'd taken all the leave available to him and looked desperately for something to do with it. Caldwell scanned the snow-covered flower bed at his feet as if it could help him formulate the words to convince Marshall. "I thought..." He shrugged. "I've spent years looking at intelligence photos of the country, why not go see it for myself?"
"Hell, Caldwell. You don't have to convince me. I said that Walter was suspicious, not that I was. Walter's suspicious of everything." Caldwell could feel Marshall's eyes on him. "But then, so is Jack Arthurs. How did you clear yourself with him?"
"We had a long talk." Caldwell shrugged again. "I guess I convinced him." He didn't want to go into some of the things he and Arthurs had talked about. They could only hurt Marshall.
"Uh-huh." The pebbled path crunched under their shoes, for several minutes the only sound. "You were awfully knowledgeable about Air Force One for a man taking his first trip aboard her." Though the words could be read as accusatory, Marshall's tone was merely curious.
"I flew on Air Force One on the outbound trip," Caldwell explained unwillingly. "One of the crew members gave me the grand tour while we were waiting for you to come aboard at Andrews."
"And you remembered it."
"I have a good memory, sir."
Caldwell caught the flash of Marshall's teeth again. "And how does a lowly major manage to hitch a ride on Air Force One?"
Marshall hadn't come to the obvious answer yet. Caldwell didn't want to tell him. He shivered, pushing his hands deeper into his coat pockets.
"Am I shuttling vagabonds now?" The teasing note still hadn't left his voice. When Caldwell still didn't answer, Marshall said, "Major," his tone now warning.
"Melanie Mitchell." It hurt to say her name. Caldwell saw Marshall flinch and wished he hadn't. He steadied himself and bulled onward. "She was.... We were friends. When she learned I was planning to go to Russia, she insisted on making my travel arrangements." Despite his grief, a smile twitched at his mouth. He knew she'd prefer it that way. "I didn't know she meant to take me on Air Force One until she dragged me out to Andrews."
"Melanie," Marshall breathed. He'd stopped before a barren flower bed and stood looking at the snow-encrusted black earth. "You must hate me--"
"Why not? I hate myself."
Caldwell could feel the hot prickle of unshed tears at the back of his eyes, and didn't know how much of it was for Melanie and how much for the man who too harshly judged himself for her death. "Even if you'd only been the secret service agent they thought you, sir, you couldn't have allowed them to draw you out, even at the cost of Melanie's life. As it was... if they'd managed to take you while all the hostages were still on the plane...." He shook his head. "We'd all be dead."
"I should have... hell I don't know, but I should have done something. Anything but crouch down there and just... listen." Marshall ran a visibly shaking hand through his hair. "Jesus, Caldwell, how can you--"
"I forgave you before Korshunov turned the intercom off." Caldwell found a smile somewhere. "Even though I didn't know it was you at the time." What haunted him was the piercing shriek that had accompanied the shot. He prayed, when he allowed himself to think of it at all, that it had not been Melanie, screaming out her fear and her death. And yet, if it was not her.... Chances were it was Alice, and that was almost as hard to take.
Marshall swung away from him. "Caldwell, you don't--"
Caldwell so far forgot himself as to grab the president's arm and haul him back around. "Ask Shep, if you don't believe me," he growled. "Ask him what I said after that bastard shot Melanie. And make no mistake, he was the one who did it, and he is the one who bears the blame for it." Marshall's forearm was like a rock under Caldwell's hand. Slowly, that rock crumbled.
"Christ, Caldwell," Marshall breathed. He took Caldwell's shoulder in a grip that trembled. "You don't know how...." He swallowed audibly and began shaking his head. His grip firmed and he nodded to himself, twice. His eyes were overly bright. "Thank you, Major."
God, to be thanked for giving absolution to a man who could have done nothing to save Melanie Mitchell. Her fate was sealed the moment she came to Korshunov's attention. Struck speechless, Caldwell dipped his head in acknowledgment. It was impossible not to notice how close Marshall was standing, not with the heat of the man's body fronting Caldwell like a furnace. Caldwell swallowed, wanting very much to step closer and that much more, therefore, to back away before he could succumb to the temptation.
Before Caldwell could move, Marshall's fingers tightened on his shoulder. It was the left one, and not all that long ago the grip would have been unspeakably painful. Now it was merely... odd. It sent a prickling sensation down the fingers of his left hand, like dots and dashes zipping along a telegraph wire. Caldwell was careful to make no sound, but he flexed his fingers to throw off the sensation.
"Sorry." Marshall let go abruptly.
The president was too damned observant, Caldwell groused to himself as he shivered in the sudden absence of the man's heat. Marshall turned back, already several steps away, and gave Caldwell a look that made him hasten to catch up. "What's with the ring?"
It was the question Caldwell had expected from the beginning. He was silent for a time as he tried to formulate an answer that would satisfy Marshall without betraying Alice's confidences. "I don't suppose you'd be satisfied if I said she liked it?"
"No, I wouldn't."
Caldwell sighed, sending up a plume of white fog. The simplest answer was also the most embarrassing, and he squirmed in his skin as he said, "Alice seems to see it as... some sort of talisman."
"A good-luck charm, you mean?" Marshall said, catching on far too quickly.
"Something like that."
"She's wrong, you know," Marshall said after a minute. He cast Caldwell a look. "That ring's not the good-luck charm. You are."
Marshall sighed and looked at his watch. "Almost five minutes. Since you last called me 'sir,'" he clarified when Caldwell blinked at him. "I do have a first name, you know."
"So do I." Caldwell consciously left out the 'sir.' "I notice you never use it."
"Is it that simple?"
"Probably not," Caldwell admitted. "Why does everyone seem to think I did something special on that plane?" he asked when Marshall remained silent long enough for him to get up the nerve. "You killed the terrorists, you recaptured the plane. Hell, you even flew it -- lot of help this Air Force officer turned out to be. I did nothing."
"Nothing?" Marshall stopped before a rose bush and looked at the withered head of a single late rose that still clung determinedly to its stem. "Was getting the hostages off the plane nothing? Every damn one of them would have died if they'd still been on the plane when we ran out of fuel. Thirty-two men and women jumped to safety, Caldwell. You were the one who saved those lives, not me. Was that nothing?"
Marshall waved him to silence. He pinched off the dead rose and dropped it to the snow-dappled flowerbed. "You distracted Korshunov's pilot long enough for me to kill him. Hands bound behind your back and you still kept him from shooting me. Was that nothing? You charged Gibs. A bullet in you that would have dropped another man, and you still lunged at him. Is that nothing?"
"I was just in the way, sir. When he shot me, I lost my balance and stumbled into him."
"That's not how I saw it." Marshall turned and grinned unexpectedly. "You're determined to stay the nobody Air Force major, aren't you? Well, Major Caldwell," he said, stepping with apparent deliberation into Caldwell's personal space and hitting him again with that wall of body heat, "you blew your cover on that plane. In every way I just mentioned. And. When you grabbed Gibs' leg while he was fighting me for the strap. When you threw the son of a bitch off balance so I could knock his gun away."
Caldwell's eyes narrowed in confusion. "I don't remember that, sir."
Marshall clapped him on the shoulder. "Trust you not to remember being a hero. Gibs was slow on the uptake, but it wouldn't have taken him long to realize there's no point in threatening to kill a man who's going to die anyway if he does what you tell him to. Given another second he'd have overcome his training and shot me to get that strap." Marshall gave Caldwell a little shake. "If you hadn't dragged yourself over to grab him...." He smiled suddenly. "Well, for one thing, you wouldn't have been close enough for me to get my hands on you before I got hauled out of the plane."
Caldwell felt a shiver overtake him that had nothing to do with the cold night air. "I should have guessed it was Gibs," he said after a moment, Marshall's hand still warm on his shoulder. He could feel the heat even through his coat.
"There had to be an inside man," Marshall agreed, "but he could easily have been killed in the fight to take the plane. Or by the very men who hired him. Or been sucked out the back when that idiot depressurized us."
Caldwell shook his head gently. "No, sir. I should have guessed it was Gibs when you left your daughter with me." Marshall's confusion was almost comical. Caldwell had spent a long time working out what was so strange about that situation, and Marshall had obviously never spared it a thought. "When you went after Korshunov and your wife, you told Alice to 'stay with the major.' Did you even know my name?"
"It was on your name tag, Caldwell," Marshall growled. His eyes were far away, however, as he tried to capture what Caldwell was saying.
"Gibs was right there. A secret service agent. One of your close protection team. But you told your daughter to stay with me."
"I didn't think about it." Marshall's voice was as distant as his eyes.
"Do you have any idea," Caldwell asked quietly, "how proud it made me feel when I realized that you trusted me over your secret service agent?" He snorted, his mouth twisting. "I didn't understand what it meant until it was too late."
"But I didn't--"
"Maybe it was a coincidence. Or maybe you instinctively knew something was wrong. It's probably nothing. But...." Caldwell dared a light touch to Marshall's shoulder. "It still makes me proud."
Marshall smiled, a lopsided grin that went straight to Caldwell's heart. God save me, he thought, far too late to save himself, I'm in love with him. He trembled. A physical attraction he might survive relatively unscathed, but this....
"Only you, Major Caldwell," Marshall was saying, with a gentle shake of the head, "would resolutely deny any possibility that you'd done things which ought by rights to have earned you the Medal of Honor, and take pride instead in the fact that I summarily turned you into a babysitter."
Caldwell couldn't help but return Marshall's smile. "I suppose so, sir."
Marshall's smile widened. He wrapped his arm around Caldwell's shoulders and steered him back toward the White House. "Come on, Nanny Caldwell, time to go inside before we freeze our extremities off."
Caldwell dared to bask in Marshall's warmth as they returned to the house. And he dared to tuck his arm around Marshall's back. And he dared to wish for things that he shouldn't even think about.
He realized, rather too late, that he was the mouse. Marshall had given him a cookie -- companionship, friends, a family. Now he wanted the milk.
He only wished he was deluded enough to think he'd get it.
Caldwell gratefully closed the door behind him. Feeling unutterably weary -- it had been a good day, all in all, but with so many ups and downs he was exhausted from the roller coaster -- he tossed his coat over the foot of the bed and headed for the bathroom. If he'd been less tired, he might have heard the water running.
"Oh! Pardon me."
"Hey Ryan, come back!" Alice's plea halted Caldwell's confused retreat and slowly reversed it. She smiled at him, looking slightly rabid with toothpaste. "I'm just brushing my teeth. It's not a crime to watch me." She was a freshly-washed pink, dressed in sweats, a t-shirt and a plaid flannel shirt, looking much as she had on the plane. His ring hung from the cord around her neck.
"Rather silly to watch, don't you think?"
"Then join me." She waved at the second sink. "Dad says," she added somewhat indistinctly around her toothbrush, "that if you don't brush your teeth they turn green and fall out. All at once."
"All at once, huh?" Caldwell smiled and came into the bathroom. "Then I suppose I'd better brush." Feeling very much like Alice down the rabbit hole -- the Marshall family had a knack for doing that to him -- he squeezed toothpaste onto his brush.
"Yeah, you should." She spit out a mouthful of foam and filled a cup with water. "After all the candied yams you ate." She rinsed out her mouth and used the rest of the water to wash the traces of toothpaste down the sink.
"And who was it," Caldwell asked after spitting in the sink, "who spooned all those yams on my plate in the first place, missy?" He lifted a handful of water to his mouth.
Alice giggled. "You should have seen the look on your face. Dad was trying so hard not to laugh, he almost choked."
"Is that what all the coughing was about?" Caldwell asked, carefully keeping his voice neutral. He rinsed out his brush and put it back in the holder.
"Uh-huh." She put her back to the counter and crossed her arms over her chest. "Don't look so disapproving. I was only trying to help after you burned your hand."
He mimicked her pose. "I don't think I needed that much help."
But she'd already moved on. "Can I see?" She reached to touch his bandaged fingers and drew back quickly.
"You'll have to help me get the bandages off." He held out his hand. "Shep used enough tape to hold it until Judgment Day."
She studied the red marks carefully once she got him unwrapped. Finally, she looked up at him through her lashes. "It doesn't look so bad."
"Why was Dad so mad?"
She had no idea what her innocent question did to him. He made himself shrug carelessly, but her sharp look told him she didn't buy it. "Because I didn't tell him."
Alice nodded. "He was right to be angry. I am too." And she suddenly looked it. "You shouldn't keep secrets like that."
"Why would you want to know?" he asked helplessly.
She stamped her foot. "Because we care, you idiot!"
For the second time that night, Caldwell remembered Shepherd's comments about twelve year olds and crushes. He gently withdrew his hand from hers and looked it over as an excuse. It didn't need rebandaging; it would heal faster, and the air getting to it could hardly cause him any pain.
"Ryan?" Alice was leaning against the counter again, studying the tiled floor between her feet. "Do you have any brothers or sisters?"
She pressed her lips together and grimaced, fidgeting with the ring hanging around her neck. "Ever wish you did?"
Caldwell let out a long silent breath. Crush, indeed. The mistake, Shep's and his own, was judging this twelve year old by all the rest of them. "Yeah," he said softly. "I did. I stopped eventually."
"When a certain somebody left a candy bar on my pillow to celebrate my first night here." He heard a prodigious sniff and found himself with an armful of teary-eyed teenager. He wrapped his arms around her and held tight as she sniveled against his sweater. When he judged she was about done, he said, "I almost didn't notice it before I went to bed. Your father would have had something impolite to say if I'd shown up for work my first morning with chocolate in my hair...."
Now she was giggling. Good.
He set her off at arm's length and just looked at her for a long moment. Her eyes were a bit too bright, but the expression in them was amusement now. Caldwell reeled her in just close enough to kiss her on the forehead, knowing very well what memory he evoked.
Alice goggled at him, her hand rising to touch the place he'd kissed. She smiled suddenly. "Not dirty anymore," she whispered.
"Never dirty," he whispered back. Then, in a normal tone of voice, "Now go to bed."
"Yes, sir." She dropped him a curtsey and dashed out of the bathroom, slamming the door to her bedroom behind her. Caldwell shook his head and went into his own bedroom, closing the door more sedately.
He was more than old enough to be her father, and it would have been more appropriate if she'd decided to think of him as her uncle. But he could do big brother, if that was what she needed.
|Caldwell looked across the wet tarmac at Air Force One. She was
impressive, sitting there in the rain surrounded by more bustle and
bright lights than a movie premier. Only this 'star' was a stand-in,
sister ship to the plane scattered across the bottom of the Caspian
Sea, and so nearly identical it make Caldwell's heart pound.
"Ready?" Shepherd murmured behind him.
"Do I have a choice?" Caldwell responded without turning, his lips barely moving. His eyes, after that brief glance at Air Force One, returned to scanning the assembled political dignitaries and members of the press. Habit. There wasn't a man or woman here or on the plane who hadn't been cleared personally by Shepherd and Jack Arthurs.
"More than he does. Jim's the only one who has to do this." At Shepherd's words, Caldwell's eyes flicked briefly to Marshall, who stood before a small podium, giving the press the 'few words' demanded on this pivotal day. He looked completely at ease. "Gotta get back on the horse," Shepherd went on in the same barely audible tones, "before some yahoo gets it into his head to say the president of the United States is afraid to. Lucky he hasn't had to do it before this." Before Air Force One was reoutfitted with, among other things, blast-resistant doors that would close between the press and executive areas if the arms cabinet was opened.
The assembled audience, including the press, was applauding, but Caldwell knew Marshall wasn't quite done yet. He'd heard Marshall and Shepherd preparing the speech.
"Seems foolish to take an unnecessary trip."
"Who says it's unnecessary?" Shepherd said around his smile. He was gently applauding. "You know, and I know, that Jim's business with the Brits could have been conducted over the phone. But they don't know that." The emphasis on the word was as good as a wave toward the assembled press. "It's all a giant pissing contest, Ryan. Can't let the world get the idea that James Marshall is scared. Just now, the bad guys think they're more frightened than he is. They don't know he needs a security blanket to sleep at night." He nudged Caldwell in the small of the back.
Caldwell so far forgot himself as to frown, but wiped the expression off his face quickly. Before he could formulate a response to the insinuation, or even decide if he ought to make one, Shepherd went on: "Poor Jim. You wouldn't think after all he's done that he'd have to prove something to the world."
"And you? Why are you going?" Caldwell asked as Marshall wrapped up his speech and stepped away from the podium. The instinct to follow was strong, but Caldwell stayed put and watched the president walk up the steps alone. He looked small and vulnerable, and Caldwell kept his eyes on him the whole way, as if he could somehow buoy him up and protect him with his unfaltering vigilance.
"To prove something to myself." Shepherd didn't ask why Caldwell was going. The answer to that was patently obvious.
Marshall was going, and Caldwell went wherever Marshall did.
Marshall stopped at the top of the stairs and, framed by the dark maw of the door, waved to the assemblage of press and Washington officials before disappearing inside the plane. A few minutes later, Caldwell, Shepherd, and the rest of the passengers did the same -- without the waving.
Marshall was in his office, a football game running silently on the large television, as if to make this take-off as similar to the other as he possibly could. It wasn't just the world he was proving something to.
"Caldwell." Marshall swiveled his chair around to face Caldwell and Shepherd as they entered. He wasn't as successful at hiding his relief as he'd probably have liked and Caldwell, remembering Shepherd's comment about security blankets, allowed himself the sort of smile he usually kept hidden around Marshall: open and honest and delighted to see the other man. And Marshall, who'd been sitting alone in an office identical to the one where it all started for the better part of fifteen minutes, smiled back with the same lack of circumspection. He was still smiling when he turned to his Chief of Staff. "Shep. Tell me Grace and Alice are all right."
"Grace and Alice are all right. Their plane landed at Camp David forty minutes ago, and Alice is already out gallivanting around on some poor horse."
"I want to call them as soon as we're airborne."
Shepherd settled on the end of the couch, looking pleased with himself. "It's already arranged."
The floor vibrated under Caldwell's feet, giving notice of the plane's imminent movement. He'd have to get himself seated soon, but he ignored that for the moment. He braced his hands on Marshall's desk and bent until he was eye to eye with the president.
"If anything happens--"
"Nothing will happen."
"Yes, sir," Caldwell agreed, and went on undaunted. "If anything happens, you will get in the escape pod."
Caldwell didn't let the use of his given name faze him. "You will get in the pod, is that understood?"
Marshall met Caldwell's eyes steadily for a full minute. In the silence, Caldwell could hear Shepherd shift uncomfortably behind him, but he didn't look away. Finally, Marshall nodded, still without breaking eye contact. "It's understood."
As Caldwell took a seat on the couch opposite Shepherd, the other man whistled almost soundlessly, but he pretended not to hear. He'd gotten what he wanted: Marshall's word he wouldn't play hero. And that was worth any repercussions for overstepping his bounds.
Caldwell wasn't the only one who caught himself listening for gunfire off and on throughout the long flight.
"Anthony." Caldwell nodded to the dark-haired secret service agent and collapsed in the chair opposite him.
Anthony looked him over. "Running you ragged, is he?" He bent to the handgun he was cleaning without seeming to expect a response.
Caldwell leaned forward to skin out of his suit jacket. The sitting room of the suite provided by the Royal Family was overheated. It might have been comfortable, he supposed, if it hadn't at that moment housed nearly a dozen secret service agents. Shepherd had offered him a bed in his room down the hall, but Caldwell knew his place. Even when he couldn't be in it.
He stripped off his comm unit, tossed it and the jacket on the table beside his chair, and rolled up his sleeves. This sitting room was the only access to Marshall's bedroom. With this many secret service agents filling the room, one more could hardly make a difference. But at this point Caldwell could no more sleep down the hall from Marshall than he could knock on that bedroom door and ask why the hell he was outside with the rest of the secret service.
He leaned his head back against the chair and tried to ignore the bustle around him. He might not belong here, surrounded by agents who were used to seeing him but not actually speaking with him. But even less did he belong inside Marshall's bedroom.
Security blanket. He knew what Shepherd had meant, though he thought the man overestimated his importance to Marshall, and it wasn't anything improper. It was Caldwell's own mind that made it improper, that insisted on taking the phrase literally and imagining his body blanketing Marshall's. Two bodies naked to each other, one covering and protecting the other, providing succor. Taking pleasure.
Caldwell closed his eyes. He was Marshall's constant companion, his eternal shadow. He spent every waking moment with the man he loved, and if it was exquisite torture, it was also an unmeasurable pleasure. He was trusted by Marshall, loved by his family, befriended by those closest to the president.... Hell, he was spending the night in Buckingham Palace, of all places! How many men of his stamp could say they'd done that? Who the hell did he think he was, wanting more?
"Give a mouse a cookie," he murmured, and Anthony glanced up questioningly. Caldwell shook his head and the other man returned to his task. The bedroom door opened.
"Yes, sir?" Caldwell stood automatically.
"Get in here." Marshall disappeared back inside before the 'yes, sir,' was even out of Caldwell's mouth.
He was almost to the door before he remembered his jacket and comm unit, but he didn't think he had the fortitude to go back for them. The room was impossibly quiet, secret service agents watching in silent shock as Caldwell made a command appearance in the president's bedroom. What the hell was Marshall thinking, ordering him in there?
He dared look back only when he got to the door. It was then that he realized his preoccupation had warped his perceptions. The room was not dead silent. There were no smirking looks. No one seemed to think there was anything out of the ordinary in Marshall's order. In fact, the agents assembled in the sitting room looked far less surprised now than they had when they realized Caldwell would be spending the night among them.
Not knowing if there were any in the bedroom, Caldwell grabbed a straight-backed chair and carried it from the room. He closed the bedroom door with a shaking inside that was far too close to rising hysteria. As far as the secret service was concerned, he had carte-blanche -- full access to Marshall with no questions asked, no prurient thoughts but his own.
It was a delicate, elegant room with flocked wallpaper, a bureau, and a large heavy bed. There was a single chair similar to the one he'd brought from the sitting room, but it was draped with Marshall's suit, so it was just as well Caldwell had come prepared. The only sign of Marshall was a splashing of water in the bathroom, audible through the partially open door. Caldwell kept a prudent distance from it.
He set his chair as far from the bed as possible while still having a good view of the door and lowered himself into it. It was stiff with padding and though moderately comfortable, would be torture to sit in all night. No more torture, however, than sitting in Marshall's bedroom through all the long hours of the night, watching him sleep.
When Marshall came out of the bathroom, he was barechested, wearing only a pair of burgundy silk pajama bottoms. Caldwell swallowed and kept his eyes resolutely on the president's face, not permitting himself to dwell on the broad chest, or worse, the lower body the thin fabric did little to hide.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Caldwell flinched in spite of himself. Had he failed so miserably at keeping his emotions off his face? No. He'd merely misunderstood. Marshall wanted a word with him, not his presence in the bedroom. For all the talk of keeping Caldwell inside the circle of security.... "Sorry, sir." Caldwell got to his feet, stumbling slightly.
"You'll be crippled if you sleep in that chair." Marshall's lips twisted in that half-grin that looked so damned appealing. "And don't say you have to stay awake all night to guard me. That's what the fellows out there are for." He reached back to flip off the light in the bathroom. "There's nothing for it. You'll have to sleep in the bed."
"Sir?" Caldwell didn't quite pause with his hand on the doorknob -- he hadn't gotten that far before Marshall dropped his bombshell -- but it felt like it. Felt like there wasn't anything on the other side of the door, either. Hovering on the edge of a precipice, he turned his head slowly until Marshall -- half-naked, with no idea how much Caldwell wanted to touch, to taste -- came into view.
"It's big enough for us both," Marshall said dismissively as he flopped down on the bed and dragged the bedding half over his body. He draped his arm over his eyes to shield them from the glow of the bedside lamp, unaware he was giving Caldwell far too tempting an opportunity to look his fill. Caldwell's cock twitched and he quickly averted his eyes and tried without success to forget how terribly beautiful Marshall was.
"I'll be fine here, sir."
"Major," Marshall growled without moving his arm, "just get in the goddamn bed."
One didn't argue with that tone of voice, any more than one questioned the sincerity of a snarling tiger. Caldwell swallowed, his throat catching. "Yes, sir."
He approached the bed cautiously, heeled off his shoes, and lowered himself gingerly on top of the covers. Marshall didn't so much as stir. Slowly, Caldwell lay back as close to the edge as he could get, keeping his eyes on the circle of light the lamp cast on the ceiling. He very deliberately did not think about what he was doing.
"You're going to sleep fully dressed?" Marshall said without moving.
"No, sir. My jacket is in the other room." He caught Marshall's smile out of the corner of his eye and, as always, it made something warm, and more inconvenient than arousal, turn over in his chest.
Marshall cleared his throat and said, still smiling, "I stand corrected. You're going to sleep fully dressed except for your jacket."
"No, sir." Caldwell allowed himself a small smile, feeling a bit more comfortable, despite his reaction to the curve of Marshall's lips.
"Don't tell me your shoes are on the floor."
"All right, sir, I won't. But that wasn't what I was going to say."
Caldwell glanced over at Marshall, careful to see the smile and not the bare chest so tantalizingly close. "I won't be sleeping."
Marshall rolled to his side with a suddenness that made Caldwell regret his impulsive honesty, and caught his eyes before he could look away. "That is not the point of this exercise, Ryan."
Caldwell flinched at the sound of his given name. He sat up, working desperately to conceal his panic. "It'll be best if I take the chair, sir. You need your sleep."
Marshall's hand clamped down hard on Caldwell's forearm and bore it back to the mattress. Caldwell subsided. He tried not to think of the plane, of this hand and this grip. A grip that had left bruises on his wrist still visible a month later. Strangely, Marshall's grip seemed no weaker here than it had been in the throes of crushing desperation. It was Caldwell's left arm, however; perhaps his sense of pressure was skewed by the lack of other senses.
"You also need sleep, Major. You will stay right where you are."
Caldwell nearly wept at the return of his rank as a means of address. Relief. Mostly. He could bear this as long as he was 'Major' or 'Caldwell.' If Marshall persisted in calling him 'Ryan,' he was likely to do something they'd both regret. "Yes, sir."
Marshall did not remove his hand, but the pressure eased. "Take this off, Major."
Caldwell's holster nudged him in the ribs. He risked a glance down to see that Marshall had uncurled his index finger and was using it to prod the gun. "Sir, I--"
"It'll be close enough on the bedside table," Marshall decreed. He released Caldwell so he could sit up and remove the shoulder holster. "There are a dozen secret service agents on the other side of that door, Caldwell, or had you forgotten?"
"Still, sir, it would be safer--" Caldwell put his holster on the nightstand, making sure the butt of the gun was within easy reach.
"We're safe enough." Marshall folded the pillow and his arm under his head and settled in, as if he meant to spend some time looking at Caldwell. Caldwell dearly hoped that was not the case; he wasn't prepared to cope with pillow talk on top of everything else. "There are men outside, and your gun is close enough if it's needed, and you will sleep, is that understood?"
"Yes, sir," Caldwell lied. He lay back down, his eyes trained on the ceiling. There was no chance in the world he'd be able to sleep.
He didn't move when he felt the light pressure of Marshall's fingers on his bare forearm.
"Can you feel that?
"A little." The pressure increased slightly. "Yeah," Caldwell said hoarsely.
"Heat? Cold? ... Pain?" The last lower, almost as hoarse as Caldwell.
Caldwell swallowed. "Just the weight of your fingers, sir."
"How far up does the numbness spread?" The faint sensation of Marshall's fingers began to move up Caldwell's arm.
He closed his eyes. "Nearly to the elbow on the outside. A little lower on my inner arm."
Marshall's fingers slipped further around the curve of Caldwell's forearm. He squeezed his eyes tighter shut and wished he believed in something to pray to. He couldn't help the ragged gasp that escaped his lips when Marshall's warm touch crossed into searing vividness near the crook of his elbow.
"There, I take it." There was something in Marshall's voice that sounded like amusement, and something else that Caldwell couldn't identify.
Caldwell licked his lips. "Yes, sir."
"So high a price," Marshall murmured, his fingers warm and steady on Caldwell's arm. "And I nearly threw your sacrifice away."
Caldwell took in a careful breath. "Sir?"
"I should have fastened the tether and jumped while Gibs was busy with you, Caldwell. I've been lectured on that often enough."
"Yes, sir." Caldwell dared to turn his head to the side and meet Marshall's eyes. "I must admit, sir.... I'm very glad you did not."
Marshall's mouth quirked. "So am I." He removed his hand, leaving the cooling impression of warm fingers throbbing on Caldwell's arm like a wound. The broad hand, fingers splayed, spread itself on Caldwell's chest, and he closed his eyes. His face was still turned towards Marshall, and he didn't dare think how that would look, and dared even less to keep his eyes open and risk what Marshall would see in them.
"I thought you were dead," Marshall murmured.
"So did I," Caldwell managed after a minute. Marshall's fingers eased gently over the scars, as if searching for a pulse he knew he'd not find on the left side of Caldwell's chest. Caldwell was just as glad his heart wasn't on that side, or how could Marshall have missed the pounding of it? He swallowed thickly, his breath shallow and careful, and couldn't say if he was afraid it would race, like his heart, out of control, or if he was merely afraid to risk dislodging Marshall's hand.
"An unusual man," Marshall murmured, a familiar phrase from their first meeting after the plane. A familiar feeling. Caldwell had been desperate and aroused and terrified Marshall would notice then, too. "Scoot over, Caldwell," Marshall said, suddenly brisk and businesslike.
"I'm used to sharing a bed, Major." Marshall's tone was the equivalent of Alice rolling her eyes. "And Grace never leaves me this much room. You won't get any sleep clinging to the edge."
Grace is your wife. And Caldwell wasn't going to get any damned sleep anyway. He shifted toward Marshall, moving less than an inch.
"Turn off the light." Marshall didn't move his hand. Caldwell reached up and managed to flip off the bedside lamp without dislodging the warm hand from his chest. It slipped away anyway once the room was dark, and Caldwell missed it dreadfully. His chest ached where Marshall's warmth had been, and Caldwell would have thought it was his heart, if his heart had been there.
"Now," Marshall said, the timbre of his voice in the darkness shivering provocatively through Caldwell's body, "go to sleep, Caldwell."
The hand was back, Marshall's fingers unerringly finding their previous roost on Caldwell's arm -- the place he could feel them. They were warm and heavy and anchored him in a way he could not explain.
"Sleep, Ryan," Marshall murmured in a dreaming voice.
And much to Caldwell's surprise, he did. Eventually.
He lay a long time in the dark, listening to Marshall breathe, before sleep overtook him. He wished it were longer. He wanted to pass the entire night just listening to Marshall sleep, feeling the warm weight of his hand, breathing in the musky scent of his body. Pretending that he had a right to this.
When he woke, Caldwell had turned onto his side. He was no longer on the edge of the bed, having gravitated naturally toward Marshall in his sleep. He looked at the man's sleeping face and was pitifully grateful for the opportunity to see it like this, relaxed and open in slumber.
Marshall's hand was still on Caldwell's arm, as if assuring himself that Caldwell wouldn't get away while he slept. Wishful thinking. He woke when Caldwell moved.
For a minute, no more, they looked at each other across the pillows, as lovers look each morning and each night. Marshall's eyes were dark, muzzy with sleep. There was a look in them that might easily be mistaken for welcome.
If one was a besotted fool who managed too easily to forget the man was happily married and supremely unattainable.
Caldwell turned away.