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Getting Back into the Real World

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Mike stretched carefully, wringing the last few days' worth of vigilance out of tense shoulders and a back gone stiff from endless hours on his feet, and slowly took a seat on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Time was, he'd still have been fresh as a daisy, no matter how long he'd been on duty; wear and tear were starting to catch up with him at last. Especially after dropping through the roof of the White House and breaking his fall on that table. It wasn't seriously slowing him down yet, though; he could still outperform most of his juniors on the Detail on the range, and around half of them in PT.

But none of that mattered at the moment; it was a warm autumn afternoon in DC, and he'd been 'ordered' to get out and enjoy the sunshine. He'd shed his suit jacket after his morning meeting, and a chilled bottle of water sweated on a step by his foot; he took in the blue sky, lush green lawns, and reflecting pool spread out before him, forearms propped on upthrust knees, and listened to the cheerful noises of the tourist crowd. It was hard to imagine, looking at them wandering around without care, that just over a year before a heavily armed C-130 had swung down over the strip of parkland known as America's Front Yard to fire into the picnickers around the Washington Monument.

Mike wasn't sure whether it was cynicism talking, or admiration for the resilience of the human spirit, but he smiled wryly at the thought regardless. It was a gorgeous day, after all, and it wasn't as though he had anywhere else to be until his weekly poker game that evening; his second on the Detail was highly competent, and he had to clock out sometime. The only thing that could have made the afternoon better would have been the addition of certain company-- but it would still be quite a while before that was a realistic possibility. At least, without a microphone in his cuff, a wire curling over his ear, and a mob of other similarly dressed people in phalanx around them; and that would defeat the entire purpose of the outing.

Though it seemed he couldn't get away from the job even alone, Mike mused with a frown. He'd noticed another man in familiar bureaucratic camouflage following him through the Mall, not making any particular effort to hide his intentions... and there he was again, looking up from the foot of the Memorial. He seemed familiar, probably an older agent Mike had crossed paths with on a past assignment or at Treasury; his body language didn't ping as a threat, so Mike sighed and acknowledged his approach with a noncommittal nod.

The guy nodded in return, then took that as invitation to come up and sit beside him, mirroring Mike's casual posture with only a brief grimace to betray aging joints.

"Lovely day, isn't it?" he asked, cheerfully.

"So far," Mike agreed, with an automatic glance toward the screen of trees and buildings blocking the White House from view. It was Agent Price's job to be professional worrywart for the day, not his, but Mike never really managed to turn it off anymore.

The other agent followed his line of sight, then chuckled, a knowing smile curling the corner of his mouth. "I see. Got a little too attached, have we?"

"I'm sorry?" Mike replied, turning to study the man more closely.

He was older than Mike, in his mid to late fifties, old enough that he probably already had his twenty in the bank; from the look of his suit and posture, though, he hadn't retired or gone private, and that told Mike something about him. He had a prominent nose, light-colored eyes, receding brown hair salted with gray, and smile lines carved deep around a mobile mouth; that last told Mike something more. He was surer now that he did know him from somewhere, but still couldn't place him.

"Doug Chesnic," the agent answered his unspoken question, holding out his hand as though assured that the name would explain everything.

And perhaps it wouldn't have to someone outside the Secret Service; but the penny finally dropped for Mike, and he raised his eyebrows as he shook the offered hand. "Of course, sir; I'm Mike Banning...."

"Current Special Agent in Charge of the President's Protective Detail, I know," Chesnic replied, cutting him off. "But none of this Sir business; call me Doug."

"Sorry I didn't recognize you, sir," Mike said, respectfully ignoring the directive. "I don't think we've ever been officially introduced."

"No," Chesnic agreed. "The last time I was in to speak with Jacobs, you were on leave after Mrs. Asher's funeral, and I figured I was a little long in the tooth to join all the re-recruits after the attack."

Special Agent Douglas Chesnic was one of the legends of the Secret Service; perhaps not as famous as, say, Frank Horrigan had been in his day, or Tim McCarthy, or Les Coffelt a generation before that, but any agent who served on a protection detail knew his story. Mike knew objectively that he was one of those legends now himself, along with every agent who'd died in and around the White House at the hands of the terrorists, but it was still a little disconcerting to have someone he'd read about as a rookie discussing the events that had landed him in the history books.

Of course, it was probably just as weird for Chesnic to meet someone else who'd been there and done that; it was a pretty rarefied club. "Funny how my public image seems to boil down to just those two events these days," he replied, ruefully. "I had a whole career before I was assigned to the White House. And a lot of miles on the ground before that."

Chesnic nodded, taking that for the acknowledgement it was. "I remember all too well what it's like, losing a principal; and I remember what it's like to recover one, too. Different kinds of fallout, but it marks you, either way."

In Chesnic's case, he'd lost his first principal to a medical condition, and been pushed to take drastic measures to rescue the second from kidnappers; challengers smaller in scope than those Mike had faced, but similar in nature. He'd undoubtedly learned the same hard lesson from them that Mike had: that it was much easier to cope when the strength of one's arms could actually affect the outcome.

It was one of life's bitter ironies that forty heavily-armed terrorists had been easier to defeat than an inanimate span of architecture in a snowstorm. And though the rogue North Koreans had killed all too many good people-- he'd only managed to rescue the President, his son, and the Secretary of Defense from among the dozens of agents and officials who hadn't evacuated before the building was locked down-- Mike had saved the man he'd sworn to protect. By comparison, Margaret Asher's loss had been much more difficult to accept.

"Well, that's what we signed up for," he replied, with a philosophical shrug. "I don't see why people find it so extraordinary that I did my duty."

"Duty," Chesnic snorted, then looked up over his shoulder at the figure of Lincoln looming behind them. "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it," he quoted. "I suppose that's as good an explanation as any. Though dare I say, there's a little more than duty involved for some of us."

Mike blinked at the very dry tone of that last sentence, and contemplated feigning incomprehension. But then he remembered the way the man had opened the conversation.

He stilled, wondering if this was some kind of unofficial intervention. Backended by Jacobs, maybe. "I was hoping to keep that quiet a while longer," he admitted with a wince. "How much trouble am I in?"

"Oh, nothing's reached the level of juicy rumor yet; though I'm sure the Director will have sharp words for you if you ever officially make her acknowledge it while you're on her payroll," Chesnic smirked. "I actually guessed because I caught you on the news the other day, and recognized the look on your face from the mirror."

Mike had figured the rest of the PPD knew that his relationship with the President was a little irregular, if not to what degree; privacy was often a polite fiction in the White House, and most of the people who worked closely with Ben were pretty bright. But while a certain amount of discretion and deniability could be figured into their private lives, Mike was very strict about how he interacted with Ben and even Connor anywhere there might be unfriendly eyes. But he supposed it didn't necessarily follow that there weren't still signs, for those familiar with microexpressions or the relevant emotional cues.

Leah had seen through him, after all, before there'd even been anything to see. Though if those sorts of rumors had ever been part of Chesnic's legend, it was certainly news to Mike.

"So you what, decided to commiserate?" he asked, with some surprise.

"I just wanted to make sure you really know what you're getting into," the older man replied. "It was scandalous enough when Tess admitted she thought of me as a son; if she'd been my age, I'd have had to retire to stay with her, and the Boss might've put me on the next plane to Fairbanks regardless faster than you can say 'demotion'. As it was, I had to work harder than everyone else to prove I hadn't become too partial to do the job."

There were any number of ways Mike could have responded to that. That while he might feel familial toward Connor, his feelings for Ben were nothing of the sort; that he hadn't said anything about what Ben might have to admit; that he wasn't a dumbass; that it was none of Chesnic's business; that Mike already worked hard to make sure that the connection between him and Ben didn't interfere with their responsibilities; that Chesnic had never said how he'd felt.

He shook his head instead, casually. "I'm not that green. Doug."

Chesnic nodded. "One more piece of advice, then?"

What the hell. "Shoot."

"Boundaries, Mike. You might have to renegotiate after he leaves this fishbowl, but pick some, and stand your ground. And don't let the job figure into it-- nobody wins when you start quoting chapter and verse on what she can and can't make you do, and what you will and won't accept from her. It's hard enough maintaining a personal relationship without bringing professional inequalities into it, even if they're the reason you met in the first place."

Well. That was... illuminating. Though a little too explicitly worded for Mike's comfort, out in the open as they were.

Fortunately, Mike was well known for the occasional inappropriate outburst, and the subject matter provided him with the perfect deflection. "Oh, I don't know, there's something to be said for roleplay..." he mused, suggestively.

Chesnic didn't seem embarrassed or offended by the remark, though; he chuckled, looking pleased, then moved to stand. "Maybe I should have been more worried about what the country's getting into with you," he joked obliquely. "Never mind, then. I'd offer you my card, in case you ever want to talk-- but I expect I'll read all about it in a few years, instead. So I'll just say-- good luck. Keep a weather eye on that principal of yours. And yes, it's worth it, if you can weather all the obstacles. No matter how long it lasts.

"It was good to meet you, Agent Banning."

"Likewise, Agent Chesnic," Mike replied, thoroughly bemused.

Without further ado, the other man headed back down the steps, humming a vaguely operatic tune.