“Yes, I should. Hold still.”
He was always refusing her. Ignoring her muffled huffs of rebellion, carefully assessing danger while she glared at his overcautious professionalism. He might’ve won under normal circumstances, but she had the experience to grant her the upper hand, and he was going to sit there and be tended to whether he liked it or not.
The fabric ripped easily, leaving her skirt shredded to tatters. At least she wasn’t wearing the Alexander McQueen. No way would the satin-lined shift she’d worn to the last rally have been as accommodating.
“Lean this way,” she whispered, “can you just -”
He bent forward carefully and she raised her arms, reaching to loop the fraying silk into a makeshift sling. His dark eyes were lowered, obliging. Long, dark lashes hid bittersweet brown eyes. She tied the knot at the back of his collar with practiced skill, ignoring the sticky discomfort of his drying blood between her knuckles. Careful to cushion the knot against his starched shirt, she tugged the length of lace around his muscular shoulder, maintaining his arm’s natural bend. It had to hurt like hell.
Her heart raced, hands trembling as excess adrenaline coursed through her. It would pass. Steady breathing to bring her heart rate down, methodical refusal to remember the last time there had been a gunshot wound to care for.
Another man to heal.
She shepherded her thoughts away from the quicksand of regrettable failure lurking at the end of that path and tied a second knot, lower at his ribs. A hiss escaped through his clenched jaw.
“Sorry,” she murmured, glancing up at his face.
He blinked and looked over his shoulder at the heavy wooden door. The gunfire had ended, but it echoed inside her head. His chest was still heaving, but he wasn’t wincing anymore. That was something.
If they had to hole up somewhere while the emergency was handled and more essential people were evacuated, at least they were together. It might not mean anything to him, the ever-stoic, inscrutable Agent Solo, but it meant something to her. If there was anyone she would have wanted to tend, any human still alive worthy of her unused medical expertise and unrealized practice, it was him.
If she couldn’t have saved her husband, at least she could spend her education on this man. Make it all worth something.
Blood staunched with a Stella McCartney kerchief for a gauze pad, Rey leaned back on her haunches to observe him for distress. Airway, breathing, circulation. She assessed him clinically from head to toe before lifting her chin and speaking softly.
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
She stifled the urge to roll her eyes at him. An assassination attempt on the vice president’s - no, the new president’s - tour of town hall meetings around the U.S, and her faithful Secret Service detail is still standing on ceremony, even while sitting on his ass inside the Governor’s Mansion library in a fly-over state on the wrong side of the Mason Dixon. If he wasn’t sporting the gunshot wound he’d earned when he’d shielded her from the would-be assassin, she’d have considered throwing a tasseled throw pillow at his head.
“I need to check for oozing at the site. Think you can take it?”
Still wouldn’t meet her eyes. She rose to her knees, reaching to open his crisp, white button down. The navy suit jacket he dutifully wore day in and day out lay tossed haphazardly over a nearby upholstered chair. A ruby circumference of softening red hues extended from the bullet’s entrance site at his deltoid near the anterior insertion point. Not life-threatening, barely limiting at all, hopefully, she realized with a breath of relief.
His eyes flew to hers when she exhaled. “Bad? Is it bad?”
“It’s okay. I’m just relieved. It could have been bad. It could have been awful. Could’ve been…” Tears caught in her throat as relief gave way to grief. The shock and terror of the last twenty minutes crashed over her in a wave. “Bad,” she sobbed, burying her face in her hands. “It could’ve been so much worse. You could’ve - “
“But, I didn’t.”
Tears cascaded as she wrapped arms around herself. This god-awful job she was saddled with, even if her husband was dead and gone for months already. This godforsaken fucking state with its backward laws and its stubborn Ammendment-worshipping people. Apparently, they hadn’t gone to medical school at a Level 1 Trauma hospital school in the mid-Atlantic. They hadn’t stitched up thirteen year-olds with brain stem lacerations and seen the effects of gang violence on the mothers in the waiting rooms who waited for sons they would soon have to bury.
His hand rested heavy and warm on her shoulder. It grounded her, anchored her inside the plush room. She sniffled and raised her head to see his starched hanky at eye level. He nodded and she blinked, taking the stiff square to wipe her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I should keep it together.”
He shook his head and she mopped her face, rubbing her lips against one another to right her face. “No, I mean it,” she sniffed. “You’ve got the gunshot wound, and I’m the one crying.”
“You’ve been through a trauma, ma’am. It’s only natural.”
She sniffled and gripped his hanky, folding shaky hands over it in her lap. “Thank you, Agent Solo. For...all that. Out there.” She gulped and swallowed, heart hammering again as she met his eyes.
A curt nod, and he held her gaze. “It’s an honor, ma’am.”
“Agent Solo, I think inside this room you can call me Rey.”
“Afraid not, ma’am.”
“I’m not the First Lady anymore, Agent Solo.”
“You’re my First Lady,” he said. “It’s my duty to protect you.”
She nodded to his shoulder somberly. “But, you did.” She held his gaze and his lips parted.
A distant voice broken by static crackled and he blinked, eyes roaming the room. With a lift of his chin, he pressed a finger to his earpiece and looked into the away while bringing the comm on his wrist to his lips.
“Arizona is secure.”
He glanced at Rey and quickly looked around the room again, checking exit points before speaking again. “Ten-four.”
When he dropped his good hand to his lap, Rey’s eyebrows raised.
“The president and Mrs. Halliford are aboard Air Force One. We’ll remain here until the city has been swept for threats and then follow on Air Force Two to an undisclosed location.”
“Right.” That was typical, at least. The norm. No one quite knew what to do with a medically-trained, fully-educated, freshly-minted First Lady since the day Joshua had been killed three months into his first term.
She was important for reasons no one could verbalize beyond offering the nation a model for grieving presidential loss during the transition to Mark’s unexpected presidency. Beyond that, she was taxed by a general sense of national co-dependence. The country couldn’t move on without her, and they wouldn’t, it seemed, based on poll numbers that rushed in a neverending current, be okay with Rey moving on without them.
The general population needed their second-coming of Camelot enshrined in living monument by Dr. Rey Kanata Perkins, Georgetown-educated, Johns Hopkins trained physician-turned-former First Lady of the United States. Maybe she hadn’t been able to save their Arthur when Camelot was destroyed, but the general public didn’t care about her inner turmoil.
The frustrations of abdicating her license.
Losing her husband.
Dancing at the Inaugural Ball one moment, and being moved out of the White House three months later in a whirlwind of dazed heartbreak.
All they cared about - all they saw was the First Lady. Treasured daughter of The Grand Canyon State. The one whose romance with Dr. Joshua Perkins reminded them of Grey’s Anatomy. She'd evolved in the tabloids overnight from gold-digging medical student to national sweetheart. When she married the press-nicknamed “McXecutive,” Rey, a unicorn of unknown heritage, adopted at age four on the outskirts of Phoenix, became the rags-to-riches fairytale romance the country had fallen for. And before she could blink, she'd been voted into office beside her new husband. He'd proposed when he accepted the party's nomination, and the honeymoon to Bali had never even happened. It was all over in a whirlwind, almost before it even began.
Now she was Rey Kanata Perkins, paper doll. The First Widow, a two-dimensional woman. One whose heart hemorrhaged from the moment Josh had died in her arms. The Rey Perkins sitting on the floor of a random mansion with too many wounds, and no way to heal any of them.
No sutures around for a doctor without a practice, a wife without a husband, a First Lady without a president.
“You alright, ma’am?”
She nodded and closed her eyes, head falling back to rest against the cushioned chair at her back. “Just tired.”
He probably nodded, but she didn’t look. Once she’d said it out loud, the weariness took the invitation to wind through her limbs, dark and cool.
“They’re moving us, you said. Any idea when?”
“Okay, then.” Sitting against the chair beside Agent Solo , she kicked off her Louboutins and sighed.
It was easier to sit next to him on the ground, anyway. No weird power differential. No sky high stiletto pumps making her fear for her life and long for a childhood spent roaming desert plateaus and mesa landscapes in sandals. The floor was a great equalizer, making them just a man and a woman. Patient and physician. Not a young, widowed former First Lady and her mostly-unnecessary assigned Secret Service detail.
“I’m just gonna close my eyes then, Agent Solo.”
There was a smile in his voice, the edge of amusement when he answered, and Rey smiled in spite of herself when she heard it.
“Looks like you already have, ma’am.”
“Rey, Agent Solo. Call me Rey.”
A rumbled whisper woke her. Lifting her head from the chair’s cushion behind her, she groaned in pain. That angle had been a mistake, she knew it before she was completely conscious. Blearily, she blinked and brought a hand to run the back of her neck. A gooseneck lamp blazed on a small end table to her right. She blinked, trying to clear her mind and make sense of her surroundings.
Her ass ached.
Her hands were sticky.
The dark room came into focus as she acclimated to the dark, and Agent Solo’s voice beside her became intelligible. The day rushed back to her in a flood of memories. The town hall rally. The new president and new First Lady. Rey’s symbolic entrance and exit to the event, a parade of well-wishers and sympathizers. The gun. The noise. Solo’s arms around her, tossing her to the ground before rushing her inside the closest building. Checking for exits and shooters. His bloody wound. The tide of violence she was still capsized inside.
“Understood,” he said solemnly.
Rey shot his a sidelong look and studied his Roman profile while he listened. Brow furrowed in concentration, full mouth with bright teeth that glinted like a comic book hero on the rare occasion he grinned. He nodded while he listened to the voice on his comm unit, eyes levelled on the wall opposite him, ever the professional.
Rey leaned caught his eye. “Hi.”
“Ma’am,” he nodded. “You’re back.”
“I am. How’s the shoulder?” She gestured to his right arm.
“Good,” he said, lips pulling into a half-grin when she raised an unconvinced eyebrow at him. “Good enough,” he added.
“What’s the word from the boss?”
“And how long was I asleep?”
“Not long. Twenty minutes, by my watch.”
“Power nap.” She stretched and sighed, dropping hands into her lap as she turned to face him. “I got real good at those on call nights.”
“As a physician?”
“Mm-hmm. Had to catch a few winks where I could between patients when they came in overnight during residency.”
“Do you miss it?” He caught her eye and looked away quickly. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to - “
“I do. Yes. All the fucking time. More than I should maybe. Yeah. I really do.” She pulled a thread from her skirt and unraveled an inch of shredded lace.
“Why shouldn’t you?”
“Oh,” she sighed. “I don’t know. Seems sort of indecent, I guess. Privileged. You know?”
He sat silently and she checked his face. Stoic as ever. Available. Silent.
“Like...like, I have this coveted seat at the table and I don’t want it. Not by myself. I’m about as important as a Christmas ornaments in April. Useless.”
“You’re not useless, ma’am.”
She smiled wryly at him. “You’re nice, Solo . But, we both know I’m about as useless as a screen door on a submarine.”
A smile cracked his face. It bloomed wider as he laughed gently until he clutched his shoulder and cringed. “Ow,” he chuckled.
“Oh, your shoulder,” she cooed sympathetically as he cradled his arm to his chest. “Sorry about that.”
“No worries. No worries. Anything I can do for you, ma’am?”
“Are you serious?”
“I’m still on duty.”
She rolled her eyes exaggeratedly and propped an arm on the chair behind her. “Give me a break, Agent Solo .”
“It’s my job to oversee the safety and security of the - “
“Former First Lady, code name Arizona. I know, I know, Solo,” she said. “I’m safe and secure. Trust me. And you’re the one in pain here. I should be asking if there’s anything I can do for you.”
“No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
“You’re really not going to call me Rey. Are you?”
“No, ma’am. I’m sorry, ma’am.”
Hunger twisted through her belly, and the noise erupted too loudly between them. Rey looked at Solo and snorted when he looked at her stomach in horror.
“Ma’am?” He stared at her in mock horror. “Are you smuggling aliens in there?” He choked back a laugh, wide-eyed as Rey broke into smothered giggles and held her belly to muffle the rumblings. “Godzilla?”
“Shut up,” she laughed, wiping tears from her eyes as she caught her breath. “It’s past my dinnertime! I’m hungry!”
“I’d say so,” he snorted, biting back a laugh. Midnight eyes twinkled at her, crinkled at the edges. A crooked smile glinted in the low light. His low voice barrelled through her like a freight train when he laughed, powerful and driven. He reached for the navy suit jacket lying on the table. The American flag lapel pin shimmered as he dug into a pocket and pulled out a pre-packaged bar.
“Here you go,” he said. A protein bar lay in his palm. “Dinner is served, ma’am.”
Rey looked down at the single bar. “That’s yours, Agent Solo. You eat it.”
“No, ma’am. Your safety and security are my utmost priority. I insist.”
“I’m just hungry, Solo. Not at any risk of suffering lapses of safety or security, I can assure you.”
“I don’t know, ma’am,” he said, smirking slightly, “your belly sounds pretty insistent over there. Wouldn’t put it past you to do something that risks national security to deal with it.”
Rey glanced at the bar, chocolate and probably packed with tasteless proteins designed to make up for all the weight-lifting someone like Solo probably did in their spare time. She’d seen him snack on the before. Knew he kept them in a pocket inside his coat pocket. She wondered if he always kept one on him. If there was a reason.
“And what kind of person would I be if I let a wounded Secret Service officer give away his last, barely-edible diet bar. Hmm?”
He grimaced and brought a hand to his heart. “That hurts, ma’am. It really hurt. More than my shoulder, I think, actually.”
“Oh, really?” she challenged, chuckling along with him.
“Definitely.” He dropped the bar on the ground between them and rested an elbow on his bent knee. “Those bars saved my life on more than one occasion.”
Her smile faded. “Really?”
Solo nodded. “Back in the day. Yeah.”
His eyes were steady on the floor between them. Rey looked down at his large fingers, splayed on the paisley wool rug. His trim nails and strong arms belonged to a man who had earned his stripes with hard work and dedication. She had little idea what had come before he was Agent Solo , who he’d been.
“Where was this?”
“You have,” she gulped and pressed on, “family there? Still?”
“Group home. Foster care.” His dark eyes flew to hers and he looked away quickly. “You don’t need to - we don’t have to…” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “It was a long time ago. Time heals wounds. Life goes on.”
She licked her lips, wondering if time did indeed heal wounds. If life did go on. In the months since Joshua’s death, she would’ve argued those points with anyone else, she realized, but she bit her tongue instead, waiting to hear what he would say next. What hope he’d offer her with his words if she’d just keep him talking.
“Anyway, you don’t need to hear about all that.”
“I don’t need to. But, I will.”
He searched her eyes and Rey let him, holding his gaze.
“Or...I'd like to.” she offered, when he didn’t speak. "Maybe?"
“I don’t talk about it often anymore,” he said, voice soft as crushed velvet. When his gaze flickered to hers it was molten, captivating.
“I get it. I don’t either about my own mess...but...you could.” She met his eyes and held her breath. “With me, you could.”
It was her turn to look away. Her gaze fell on their hands, side by side on the rug between them. He had amazing hands. Masculine hands. The type a girl could trust to keep her safe and heal her wounds, the kind that took a bullet for her and forgave her for letting the president die. The hands of a man. It had been a long time since she’d twined her fingers with anyone’s, taken anyone’s hand to do more than accept help stepping off a stage, down a stairwell, across a walkway.
A key scraped the lock in the door across from them and Rey yanked her hand away to cover her gasp. Solo was on his feet in a moment, reaching for his sidearm as the door’s lock clicked free, and then the door to the library inside the Governor’s mansion swung open.