Nate watched the changing of the guards from the shadows of the hallway inside the White House. Brad’s shift was over and he was being relieved with all the pomp and ceremony the United States Marine Corps could muster. He used to wonder at Brad’s surprising ease with something that should prompt one of his epic rants. Then Nate realized that for Brad, it was about the precision of the drills and solemnity of the assignment.
“He certainly fills out a uniform nicely, doesn’t he?” Donna suddenly asked from just behind Nate.
Nate nodded his agreement. “He certainly does.” He’d long ago given up trying to pretend Brad didn’t have that type of affect on him.
“Any special plans for the holiday?” Donna inquired as Brad removed his cover and crossed the foyer to where they stood.
“A good old-fashioned California bar-b-que,” he replied as he smiled at Brad.
“Good morning, Donna,” Brad greeted.
“Good morning, Sergeant,” she replied with a wide smile. “You two enjoy your holiday.”
“Thanks, Donna,” Nate called to her back as she strode down the hall with purpose.
“Ready to go, sir?” Brad asked.
Before Nate could reply or either of them could move, Margaret came charging down a connecting hallway.
“Mr. Fick, thank goodness you haven’t left, yet,” she called, slightly out of breath. “Leo said the President needs to see you. Something’s happened.”
Nate let out a soft groan of frustration and disappointment.
Brad chuckled. “You can’t say you’re really surprised, can you?”
“What’s going on, Margaret?” Nate asked as the three of them started down the same hallway Margaret had come from.
“I don’t know, Leo just said to stop you from leaving. He was rounding up Josh to come brief you.”
Josh Lyman chose that moment to round the corner ahead of them. “Nate,” he called as he approached them. “The President needs us in the Situation Room. Hey, Brad.”
“Hey, Josh,” Brad said mildly.
Josh spared Brad a glance, then did a double take. “I always forget how tall you are,” he mumbled absently.
“Josh,” Nate said in his ‘officer voice’, trying to get Josh to focus. “Is this a situation or situation?”
“Employees of the defense contractor, Eres International, have been pinned down for six hours inside their operations compound in Afghanistan,” Josh replied. “They’re running low on ammo and are calling for military assistance.”
“What the hell are they doing engaging in battle?” Nate asked harshly, his stride picking up speed as Josh fell into step beside Brad and him. “They’re unlawful combatants.”
“They claim they were attacked and are merely defending their lives and their property,” Josh replied hurriedly. “The President is willing to send troops to assist but he needs you to be prepared for the hell that could break loose as a result.”
They pivoted left and continued down the hallway that would lead to Nate’s office. He was only barely aware when a warm hand closed over his own and relieved him of his briefcase. Nate glanced up to see Brad veering into his office.
“Go get ‘em, Captain,” Brad said with that half smile that made Nate’s knees weak.
Inside the Situation Room, Nate was cursorily greeted by Admiral Fitzwallace and Nancy McNulty, among others.
Leo was suddenly beside him, speaking quietly, “We’re sorry to do this to you, Nate. You don’t get much time off as it is, let alone with your Marine in town. Let’s just see if we can get this thing resolved without loss of life and then you can get back to your holiday plans.”
“Nate,” President Bartlett called from his place at the head of the table. “I apologize, but once again I must encroach upon with your infrequent personal time.”
“Sir, I serve at the pleasure of the President,” Nate replied as he took his seat and began to glance over the printed sit rep.
“Sometimes I wonder which of us is the politician,” the President quipped, then turned serious. “So what have we got? How do we bring it to a bloodless end? And who do we have to placate to do so?”
It soon became evident that the ‘placating’ part of the plan was going to be Nate’s responsibility. In just over one hour, he had a clear picture of who he would have to call, who to avoid, and who to take a firm stance with as the Commander in Chief took swift and decisive action.
Nate received his instructions and headed for his office, flanked by Josh and Toby.
“They’re unlawful combatants, they’re mercenaries,” Toby said shrilly, gesticulating wildly.
“They are non-military, U.S. citizens who were attacked by an army with whom we are at war,” Josh nearly shouted in reply.
“They can not engage in combat …” Toby cried.
“They were attacked! What if they were Peace Corps workers?”
“Peace Corp workers don’t carry assault rifles!” Toby shouted this last.
Nate was trapped between his own two enemy combatants, but they’d reached his office door. “All right, gents,” Nate spoke into the melee, holding up both hands as if to separate Josh and Toby. “Philosophical discussions are moot, at this point. The President has resolved to use United States Marines to assist American citizens engaged in armed conflict with an enemy army.”
“Which means you’re here instead of at home with your Marine where you belong,” Toby stated emphatically.
“At least his Marine is here with him,” Josh said, thrusting his hands into his trouser pockets and stepping to lean against the jam of the door to Nate’s office.
Catching sight of Brad through the glass wall, Toby stepped into the doorway.
“Good to see you again, Sergeant,” he said with a nod.
“Thank you, Toby,” Brad replied. “Likewise.”
“Sorry we had to commandeer Nate,” Josh said. “If your fellow Marines are quick about their mission, you might still get to take him home early.”
“We knew things like this would happen when he accepted the job,” Brad said with a laconic shrug. “What better way to spend Memorial Day than working for the government so many sacrificed to protect?”
There was a long silence while everyone stared intently at Brad.
“I can’t bring myself to ridicule that statement when it’s delivered by a Marine in dress blues,” Toby finally said, wandered off down the corridor.
“At least he hasn’t got the sword, this time,” Josh said as he followed in Toby’s wake.
“Or the camera,” Nate heard Toby say just before they turned a corner.
Nate shook his head and entered his office, heading for his desk.
“So, is this a situation or a situation?” Brad asked.
“It’s a situation,” Nate replied.
“Fuck,” Brad whispered under his breath and reached for the brass buckle of his belt. Nate watched, phone handset forgotten in his hand.
Brad removed his white belt and coiled it around his hand before setting it on the table. Next, he carefully unbuttoned each ornate brass button of the dark jacket, heavy and colorful with the decorations of Brad’s numerous ribbons and medals. He folded it carefully and laid it over the back of the visitor’s chair. He put his hands on his hips and looked up at Nate expectantly.
“Might as well get comfortable if you’re going to be awhile,” Brad finally said. In shirtsleeves and tie, Brad was still in uniform per regulation, just not quite so formal.
Nate thought he looked just as hot, though.
“You stood watch already this morning,” Nate pointed out. “You should go to my townhouse and get some rest.”
“If you’re here, I’m staying here,” Brad said, taking a seat on the small couch across from Nate’s desk. “No sense in wasting time resting alone when I can be here in your company. Besides, you’re really sexy when you get all bossy with foreign heads of state.”
Nate snorted in response, feeling himself color in both embarrassment and pleasure at Brad’s words.
More than an hour later, Nate glanced up to find C.J. coming to stand in the door to his office.
“I’m starting to get phone calls asking some very pointed questions,” she said to Nate. “Something is leaking out. Do you have anything I can take to a briefing?”
“Dammit, C.J.,” Nate said in frustration. “The last thing I need is media attention right now.”
“I’ll hold them off as long as I can,” C.J. sympathized. “But if they get it from another source, there isn’t much I can do.”
“Good afternoon, Ms. Cregg,” Brad said smoothly. He effectively diffused Nate’s growing tension and the burgeoning argument between C.J. and him.
“Oh, Brad, hello,” C.J. said with a wide smile. Nate hid a smirk as he watched her tilt her head and cock a hip as she spoke to Brad. “I heard you were taking a Memorial Day watch.”
“I had the honor this morning,” Brad supplied, standing up and resting against the door opposite C.J. “As soon as Nate restores world peace, we’re going to pay our respects at the memorials and tombs around the city.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” C.J.’s tone turned solemn as she realized the meaning of this day to himself and Brad.
“See what you can do to keep the liberal media from interfering in Nate’s idealistic attempts at diplomacy,” Brad said, exercising his own brand of diplomacy. “The easier his job, the sooner he’s done and the faster I can get him home and all to myself.”
C.J. laughed and blushed simultaneously. “I’ll do my best to have you both out of here as soon as possible.”
Brad graced her with a wide, bright smile. “I appreciate that.”
C.J. looked like she was twirling a strand of hair in her fingers as she headed off down the hallway.
“Nicely played, Sergeant,” Nate said, admiringly.
“Any weapon in my arsenal,” Brad said lightly, resuming his place on the sofa.
It was early evening when Abby Bartlett graced them with her presence. “Nate, will there ever come a time that we don’t have a crises that requires your assistance on one of the few days you try to have a personal life?”
Brad and Nate both leapt to their feet when she entered the office. “Good evening, Mrs. Bartlett,” they said in unison.
“Brad, you looked very handsome and very official standing watch this morning,” she said, taking Brad’s large hand in her own smaller one. He dwarfed the First Lady, even as she seemed to tower over him.
“Thank you, Madame First Lady,” Brad replied.
“Oh, none of that,” she scolded. “Mrs. Bartlett will do.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, Mrs. Bartlett.”
“Nate,” she said, turning to face him with a serious expression. “You get those bullies to back down. We don’t want civilians or good Marines injured or killed on this day, of all days.”
“I’m doing my best, Mrs. Bartlett,” Nate assured her.
“I know you are. You always do.”
She turned to leave the office but turned back to Brad just before she exited. “And, Sergeant?”
“Yes, ma’am?” Brad asked, obviously surprised and nervous.
“No cigars on the veranda, today. Do I make myself clear?”
“You do, ma’am,” he assured her hastily.
“Good,” she said with a satisfied smile. “You boys try to have a good night.”
When she’d left, Brad sad down heavily on the sofa. “That woman frightens me.”
“She scares me, too,” Nate confessed with a laugh.
“You could take command presence lessons from her. And I thought, ‘Brad, get out of the hole’ made me feel like a naughty five-year-old.”
Josh suddenly appeared in the office doorway. “It’s over, Nate. The Eres compound is secure.”
Something about Josh’s demeanor caused a cold fist to grip Nate’s gut. “Casualties?”
“Two Marines and three contractors dead. Five Marines and three contractors wounded,” Josh said succinctly, his face solemn.
“Damn,” Brad whispered.
“Yeah,” Josh concurred. “At least more lives were saved than were lost and the enemy combatants sustained one-hundred percent casualties.”
“Any fall out?” Nate asked.
“None,” Josh sighed. “Good job, Nate.”
Nate nodded in acknowledgement.
“Debrief in ten minutes,” Josh said, then turned to leave. “We’ll release him to your custody as soon as we can,” he said to Brad, just before he walked back down the corridor.
Brad stood from the sofa and walked toward Nate, applauding quietly.
Nate waved off the wordless approval. “Too many casualties to consider this a victory.”
Brad place his large, warm hands on Nate’s shoulders and shook him gently. “Stop denigrating the work you did today. I was here for every word of every phone call. You might not have carried an M-16, but you fought a difficult battle on behalf of fellow Marines and for them, I thank you.”
Nate couldn’t help but smile under the warmth of Brad’s praise. He leaned in willingly when Brad pulled him close for a chaste kiss.
“Nate,” President Bartlett called as senior staff began to leave the Oval Office. “Retrieve your Marine and join me on the veranda, if you would.”
“Yes, Mr. President.”
Nate had no idea what this was about but he knew not to keep the President waiting. Brad was back in full Class A uniform when Nate got back to his office. He paused for just a moment to admire the sight.
“Ready?” Brad asked when he caught sight of Nate in the doorway.
“The President has requested that you and I join him on the veranda,” Nate replied, gesturing for Brad to accompany him.
“No,” Brad protested, looking almost frightened. “I promised the First Lady no cigars on the veranda. Don’t make me have to tell my Commander in Chief ‘no’.”
During their walk back to the Oval Office, Brad and Nate strategized how to avoid angering Abby Bartlett without having to tell the President of the United States ‘no’.
As it happened, they needn’t have worried.
On the White House veranda, President Bartlett gave each of them a tall glass of pale amber liquid. When they hesitated, he gave a chuckle.
“Relax, gentleman,” the President said. “I know the First Lady has made dire threats if you contribute to my delinquency. It’s ginger ale.”
Brad and Nate both relaxed, exchanging a brief look of understanding and relief.
President Bartlett lifted his glass in a toast. “To all those who sacrificed today, in blood, sweat or tears. To all who have sacrificed for us in the past. Be they soldier or civilian, on foreign soil or here at home, let none of them be forgotten.”
“Here, here,” Nate and Brad chorused, clinking their glasses against those of their Commander in Chief.