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Through His Eyes – Jack’s POV, from the first get-together to the pool room

 

Jack groaned, throwing his head back against the couch and his hand out toward the TV. “C’mon! Dick Cheney has better aim that that!”

 

Next to him, Ethan snorted, almost choking on his beer. He coughed and stared at Jack.

 

“What?” Jack gestured to the TV. “They’re playing awful!”

 

Chuckling, Ethan shook his head and smiled wide. “You tell ’em, Mr. President.”

 

Jack winked and took a drag from his beer.

 

This was good. Better than he’d expected, actually. Ethan was just as he’d imagined: smart and fun, and even a bit playful, when he relaxed. He’d seen hints of the man beneath the agent on the detail, and he’d wanted to get to know him more for months. Befriend him.

 

Finally, after a few misses and a fitful start, they were actually hanging out. Drinking beers and watching a ball game together.

 

Sure, Ethan still looked over his shoulder at every squeak and sound behind them. He was still nervous, and Jack could understand why. They weren’t supposed to be hanging out in the Residence, and they weren’t supposed to be friends, according to the rules of the Secret Service. He’d considered canceling this, texting Ethan back and telling him never mind, that he didn’t want to put Ethan in a position where he could get into trouble, or damage his career or his professionalism. But, Ethan had insisted he was doing this because he wanted to, and…

 

Well. He wanted to, too.

 

The game rolled on, and his team moved to up to bat. A couple misses, a few hits, and the bases were loaded. A new batter came up to the plate, and Jack groaned again, sinking into the couch cushions. “This guy hasn’t driven anyone home since his junior prom.”

 

Next to him, Ethan laughed, deep and rich. Jack beamed, and then he clinked his beer bottle against Ethan’s when Ethan held his out for a cheers.

 

“You’re something else, Mr. President.”

 

“Jack.” He took a sip of his beer. “C’mon. You can say it. Jack.”

 

Ethan just grinned. “Mr. President.”

 

* * *

 

I’m so sorry.

 

Jack’s eyes darted to Jeff Gottschalk, frowning as he stared down at the speakerphone and nodded along with the Senate Majority Whip. Jack kept his phone angled toward his chest, and his fingers hovered over the keyboard.

 

[It’s okay. I understand.]

 

Ethan was waiting—literally—in the walls. Waiting in the hidden stairwell just a few feet down the hall. He’d been on the way up to watch another game, but Jeff had come up to the Residence first, an urgent call from the Senate on hold. They’d had to take it, but he still felt shitty, leaving Ethan waiting in the walls, out of sight and hidden. Like a dirty little secret.

 

That’s not what Ethan was. He deserved better than that.

 

Frustration clawed at Jack. Ethan was a good guy. This was wrong, treating him like this.

 

His thumb hovered over the keyboard. Tell him to go home. Tell him this isn’t right, him hanging out in the walls. Tell him you’re sorry.

 

But he didn’t.

 

Instead, he tapped his foot and nodded along with Jeff and then hurried his chief of staff out of the Residence once the call was over. He felt like an ass, but he tried to bury that, smiling wide when he saw Ethan heading down the hall for his study.

 

He passed Ethan a beer. His smile faded, turning to more of a grimace. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“No worries.” Ethan raised his beer. “It’s nothing. And I really do understand.”

 

“It won’t happen again. You deserve to be treated with more respect.”

 

Ethan smiled slowly. “I appreciate that.” He cleared his throat. “But we do still have to keep this secret. So I understand.”

 

Jack nodded but glared down at his feet. “Yeah.” Sighing, he beckoned Ethan over to the couch. “All right, enough of this. We’ve got a game to watch.”

 

“You going to rip the batters a new one again?” Ethan winked.

 

“Only if they play terribly. Their fate is entirely in their own hands!”

 

* * *

 

Who got the burger? And where is it from?

 

Jack sniffed the air again, poking his head out of the Oval Office. Mrs. Martin, his secretary, snorted at him.

 

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a good artery-clogging burger?” He took a deep breath, closing his eyes. “Oh, that smells good.”

 

His phone buzzed. [Doing recon now.]

 

Jack smiled.

 

“I can get the kitchens to prepare you a burger, Mr. President.”

 

“No.” Sighing, Jack leaned back, his head on the doorjamb. “They are awesome. But…” He winked. “Too healthy, sometimes. The pizza isn’t greasy enough. I don’t feel my heart stop when I eat it.”

 

Mrs. Martin shook her head, her lips pursed. “Just what we need. The president trying to give himself a heart attack.”

 

His phone buzzed again. [Patterson. One of Reyes’s staffers. From a hole in the wall, he says.]

 

Smells amazing. The chefs here would never make something so unhealthy. I think it’s against their contract.

 

[You might be right. 🙂 Far too dangerous.]

 

But I work out all the time! 🙁 You make sure of that.

 

[There’s a legend in the Secret Service. A terrible story of the risks and responsibilities of this job. The cautionary tale of The President and the Pretzel.]

 

Jack laughed, his shoulders shaking. One of his predecessors, a man who had been president when he was in college, had choked on a pretzel, and panicked Secret Service agents administered the Heimlich until he puked. It had been on the news for ages, and a pillar of pop culture for his predecessor’s entire presidency.

 

You would never let me suffer such a fate.

 

[You are correct.]

 

Sighing, Jack headed back into his office. He left the door open, though, and sniffed the air one last time.

 

Two hours later, as the day wound down, and his staff was closing up shop for the weekend, someone knocked on his doorframe.

 

“What’s up?” Jack looked up, his reading glasses sliding down his nose.

 

Ethan’s head popped into the doorway. “Mr. President.”

 

Jack grinned. “Come in.” He stood, abandoning his work, and tossed his glasses on his papers.

 

Ethan had a sly grin, and he kept something hidden behind him as he headed for Jack.

 

The smell hit Jack first. A burger and a side of fries. Greasy, salted, and still warm. He breathed deep, moaning on the exhale. “Oh God…”

 

A flush stained Ethan’s cheekbones as he brought out a bag from behind his back. “Special delivery, Mr. President.”

 

“I’m nominating you for a presidential medal.” Jack shucked his jacket over the back of his chair, loosened his tie, and undid his cuffs, rolling them up to his elbows as Ethan brought the bag over. He set it down on Jack’s desk, scooting his papers over to clear a space, and then plopped a drink down beside the bag.

 

“And one chocolate milkshake.”

 

His eyebrows shot up. “Now, that’s asking for a heart attack.”

 

“Which is why I will be watching you eat.” Ethan pretended to take up post, squaring his shoulders and clasping his hands in front of him, staring.

 

Laughing, Jack tore the bag open. Two burgers and two fries. Perfect. He held one up for Ethan.

 

He seemed hesitant, but Ethan finally stepped forward, sitting in the chair beside Jack’s desk and taking the burger. Jack grabbed his and leaned back, propping his feet up on the bottom drawer of the desk. “This is heavenly.” He beamed. “My hero.”

 

Ethan’s flush was back, and he held Jack’s gaze for a long moment, longer than they’d ever had before. He seemed to be searching for something to say, but he was smiling slowly, and then he bit down on the corner of his lip. Looked down at his burger. “Just doing my job.”

 

Jack shook his head. Nudged Ethan’s shoe with his. “No. You’re being an awesome friend. Thank you.”

 

Ethan smiled again, but this time, it was tighter, and it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Mr. President,” he said, nodding once.

 

* * *

 

He thought about Ethan off and on throughout the weekend. What did Ethan do on his days off? What kinds of hobbies did he have?

 

Jack swam laps in the pool Saturday night, and as the water flowed past him, his thoughts had once against turned to this friend. Ethan worked out, that was for sure. That muscular body of his didn’t come from a diet of burgers and neglect.

 

Did he watch movies? Go for hikes? Ethan had been with the Secret Service for over a decade, so he’d probably already done most of the tourist attractions in DC. Jack, even though he’d lived there for six years, still hadn’t made his way through all the museums. If he wasn’t the president, maybe he could have asked Ethan if he wanted to kill an afternoon checking one out. Grab some beers after. Maybe a game.

 

Did Ethan have a girlfriend? He’d admitted to being a loner over Christmas, and had sacrificed his holiday so his agents could be with their families, but he had to have someone special in his life. A good guy like that deserved to have someone love him. Hopefully he was having a great weekend with them.

 

Maybe he’d do something special for Ethan. Let him know how much he was appreciated. How grateful he was for his friendship, and his performance as detail lead. Yeah. Yeah, he would.

 

Jack ate his Sunday dinner in the Residence’s kitchen, munching on a salad as he stared at the walls and listened to the hum of the refrigerator. His mind spun on, thinking of what he could do.

 

* * *

 

He searched for Ethan on Monday, eyes darting through the crowded hallways of the West Wing. Monday mornings were always busy, a rush of people and briefings and everyone cramming the happenings of the weekend into the first four hours of the day. He went from meeting to meeting, bouncing between calls and his office and the Roosevelt Room while swiping through his cell and fielding emails from congressional leadership and his staff. No texts from Ethan, though. Nothing since they’d wound down on Friday, sharing burgers and fries and jokes between the two of them.

 

But there. Just down the hallway. Turning the corner with two of his detail agents and talking to them softly, Ethan was headed right for Jack and his team, their two groups about to pass each other. Jack beamed as Ethan looked up, holding his gaze.

 

Ethan stopped talking, his mouth freezing midword.

 

Ethan’s agents stared at him, and then at Jack.

 

“Hey.” Jack kept smiling as he passed by Ethan and his guys. “Have a good weekend, Agent Reichenbach?”

 

“I did.” Ethan sounded breathless. He sent Jack a quick smile. “You, Mr. President?”

 

“Quiet and boring. Always good for a president.” He winked and threw Ethan another smile over his shoulder as he moved away. He almost spun around, keeping up the conversation, but he settled for one last glance and grin before he ducked into the Cabinet Room.

 

A few hours later, his phone buzzed, and the screen showed an incoming text from Ethan. His belly button clenched, and he smothered his grin as he dragged the phone across the table while the secretary of the interior kept talking.

 

[Got a few more heckles for your repertoire, Mr. President. “Gotta swing that bat yourself. Batteries aren’t included!” “What position do you play? Left bench?”]

 

His feet tapped beneath the table, his heels bouncing against the carpet. Love them. Can’t wait to use them. Coming over for the game on Thursday?

 

[If you’d like me to.]

 

Of course I want you to come.

 

“Mr. President, as we’re preparing for the summit in Prague…”

 

Jack looked up, darkening his screen as he turned his attention back to his Cabinet meeting. His foot still tapped, though, and there was a zing inside him, a rush that seemed to race through his veins. His smiles came a little easier for the rest of the day.  

 

* * *

 

Ethan walked into Jack’s private office and stopped dead. His jaw dropped.

 

“A thank you for the burgers.” Jack smiled and pulled out a chair, gesturing for Ethan to take a seat. “And because I wanted to.”

 

Ethan moved slowly, as if dazed, and took a seat as Jack waited. He frowned. “Mr. President—”

 

“It’s nothing.” Jack waved away whatever protest Ethan was trying to spout. “I wanted to do this for you. A thank you for everything you’ve done for me. This is the least I can do.”

 

He seemed to not know what to say after that, his lips trying to form a protest before giving up and pressing together in a tight smile. “Thank you, Mr. President,” Ethan breathed. “This is…exceptional.”

 

“So are you.” Jack laid his napkin across his lap. Ethan coughed and reached for his water, taking a long gulp. “So, let’s chat about Prague. This is going to be a big summit. Let’s get on the same page. Make sure everything goes smoothly.”

 

He listened as Ethan outlined their security procedures, using knives and forks and the salt shaker as props on the table. Jack wanted to learn, and he asked questions about Ethan’s perspectives and his tactics, and then stole one of Ethan’s props when he wasn’t looking. Ethan seemed stunned when Jack first snagged the little salt shaker that was supposed to be his presidential SUV, staring at Jack, speechless.

 

Jack slid it back to him, chuckling.

 

Eventually, Ethan pretended to stab Jack’s hand with his fork when Jack made yet another grab for one of Ethan’s props, and Jack sat back, snorting and giggling while Ethan fought his own laughter. It was incredibly unpresidential, but it felt good. Like being with Ethan was permission to be himself, and he didn’t have to be so stately and important all the time. He could be goofy. He could try to wheedle that smile out of Ethan. Could relax, and let the warmth he felt around Ethan flow through him, lifting him up for the rest of the day.

 

They finally finished lunch, and Ethan had pushed aside all of his props, far away from Jack’s reach. Sitting back, Jack tried to stall, not ready for their time together to end. He twirled his glass of iced tea, making circles on the tablecloth. “So. Do you play pool?”

 

* * *

 

Ethan groaned, tipping his head back, and drained his beer. “Again?”

 

“Sorry.” Jack wasn’t sorry at all. He winked at Ethan when Ethan shook his head, glaring.

 

“You suckered me.” Ethan pointed, wagging his finger. “You pretended this would be a fair game.”

 

“I did nothing of the sort!” Jack pressed his hand to his own chest, his jaw dropping in feigned outrage. “All I asked was if you wanted to knock some balls around.”

 

Blushing, Ethan rolled the pools balls across the table, where Jack was setting them up for another break. “Yeah. You said it would be fun to practice. Implying that you needed the practice.”

 

Jack shrugged and grinned. “Maybe I meant it would be fun for you to practice.”

 

“Mm-hmm.” Eyes narrowed, Ethan waited until Jack stopped laughing, smothering his grin by biting his lip, before he made his break. Balls bounced around the pool table, and Ethan sank a stripe and a solid. He called for stripes.

 

Jack waited until Ethan had made his shot before speaking. “Did you see the news about the Caliphate targeting China in Somalia?”

 

“Yeah.” Ethan looked up, a frown creasing his forehead. “Although, China doing anything in Somalia is interesting on its own.”

 

Another stripe fell into the pocket.

 

Jack nodded. “I keep trying to guess at their motivations. There could be a hundred, but which is it?”

 

“China could be trying to woo more of the continent.” Ethan’s tongue poked out as he frowned. “Trying to get more of Africa to pivot their way?”

 

“Definitely. But Somalia? They’d do better pouring more money into Kenya. They already built that deep water port for Mombasa. And bid for a massive transportation contract across Tanzania and Uganda.”

 

“If they can bring order to Somalia, they’ll be heroes in both Africa and the Middle East. The rest of the world has tried. Maybe they’re taking their turn.” Ethan’s eyes flicked to Jack as his ball sank into the pocket.

 

Slowly, Jack smiled. “I thought you said you weren’t any good at international relations or politics.”

 

Ethan took a long minute to chalk his stick, not looking at Jack. “I’ve been reading up on things.” He shrugged. “I’m trying to learn.”

 

Something bloomed in Jack’s chest, a warmth that curled his toes and made his smile go soft. “You’ve always been better than you gave yourself credit for. I love hearing your opinions.”

 

Ethan flubbed his next attempt, and he scooted away as Jack lined up. He sank his first solid, but the shot was sloppy.

 

“I do mean that, Ethan.” He looked up from the table, finding Ethan’s eyes burning into him as he leaned against the back of the couch. “I do.”

 

* * *

 

[Shit. I left my suit jacket up there last night.]

 

Blinking, Jack rubbed his eyes and read the message again. The sun hadn’t come up yet, and he was propped up on one elbow, sleeping in his undershirt and boxers, or, more accurately, stuck between sleeping and waking, thanks to Ethan’s text.

 

K

 

[You’ve got to go get it. What if someone finds it?]

 

They’ll find a jacket?

 

[One not yours. In the Residence.]

 

Sighing, Jack flopped back, scrubbing his hand over his face. A moment later he was up, sniffing and blinking and shuffling out of his bedroom and down the hall to the game room.

 

He smiled, though, when he saw Ethan’s jacket, tossed over the back of the couch. Grabbing it, he headed back for his bedroom.

 

I’ve secured the package.

 

Ethan was quiet for a while.

 

[Thank you.]

 

No prob. 🙂

 

If it was important to Ethan, he’d do it.

 

* * *

 

Ethan slipped into the back of the Cabinet Room and took up position across from Jack, smothering his grin. He held Jack’s stare.

 

“I agree, I agree,” Jim, the ambassador to the UN, said, nodding. “Let’s hang that one out on a shingle. We’ve got NATO on board. Maybe the UN will follow.”

 

Jeff and Jack both reached for their water glasses, taking sips as their eyes met. Jack’s gaze then flicked back to Ethan, and he winked.

 

Ethan pressed his lips together and shook his head, faintly, but his eyes were warm, gazing at Jack like Jack was the only one in the room.

 

He couldn’t look away, not when he put down his glass, or when Elizabeth started speaking. He kept staring at Ethan, smiling slowly, until the vice president nudged him. He turned to the secretary of defense.

 

Ethan ducked out.

 

* * *

 

After the congressional leadership meeting, and the pun he sent Ethan about the Swiss flag, Jack settled down at his desk. His afternoon was full, working through the leadership’s proposals to combine two very different drafts of a bill working through the Senate, and after that, he had his own preparations for the NATO summit in Prague to get through. Whistling, he bobbed his head in time to music softly playing out of his laptop, a catchy pop beat about falling in love.

 

His phone buzzed.

 

There really was only one person who texted him anymore. Jeff barged in with any emergencies, and thanks to governmental record keeping, most everything else was either delivered to him verbally or sent in an official email. Grinning, Jack spun his phone closer.

 

[Did you hear? The dictator was really upset about the neckwear he had received as a gift. What a tie rant.]

 

Jack threw his head back and laughed out loud.

 

* * *

 

Groaning, Jack pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes closed as he braced his elbows on the Resolute desk. The French president kept talking in fast, angry French, and his translator was struggling to keep up.

 

“…and he’s saying that the idea is nonsense, and he was against it from the start—”

 

“Now that’s just not damn true!” Jack interrupted the French president, growling. “You were all on board with this emergency NATO summit at Camp David, and you wanted to invite the Russians!”

 

Blistering French erupted over the line. Jack held the phone away from his ear, and his translator, holding her own handset, winced. The joint chiefs, sitting on Jack’s couches, glared.

 

“He says he recommended it as a publicity ploy—”

 

“Oh, bullshit,” Jack snarled. “Look—”

 

The French president snapped something and cut the line.

 

Jack’s glare turned frigid, and he exhaled through his nose as he hung up the phone.

 

“All right.” He took a deep breath. “General Bradford. Walk me through our fall back options for moving on the Caliphate without any international support.”

 

An hour later, Jack rolled his neck, trying to fight back against the headache blooming at the base of his skull.

 

If only Ethan were there. He could roll his eyes and snark with Ethan, lambasting the French president and his flip-flopping.

 

He pulled out his phone and leaned back in his chair, keeping it below the desk. General Madigan was discussing troop movements through Turkey with the chief of staff of the Air Force, and for a moment, no one was looking at him.

 

Would it be too much if I issued an Executive Order mandating that we go back to “Freedom Fries” instead of French fries? Is that too far?

 

Ethan buzzed back, and almost as soon as he felt the phone vibrate, the tension in his shoulders started to uncurl. [If it makes you feel better, every president has nearly had an aneurysm over the French.]

 

Jack smiled and almost laughed. Oh good. So it’s not personal.

 

“Mr. President?”

 

“Yes?” He sat up, keeping his phone on his thigh.

 

Bradford frowned. “What do you think about the possibility of using Israel’s bases as a launch point for some of our air missions?”

 

Jack blew air through his pursed lips. “We’ve steered clear of that for decades. Never wanted to make Israel a bigger target than she already is.”

 

“But Israel and the greater Middle East are on the same side for this one. Everyone wants to see the Caliphate go. Everyone.”

 

“It’s a possibility.” Jack chewed on his upper lip. “Let’s put it on the back burner for now.”

 

The phone on his desk beeped, and his secretary’s voice filled the office. “Mr. President, the British prime minister is on the line for you.”

 

“Thanks, Mrs. Martin.”

 

Jack set his cell on the desk and waited for Mrs. Martin to connect the prime minister to his desk phone. He swiped a quick message back to Ethan.

 

Gotta go. Brits are calling back and the generals are getting grumpy I’m texting.

 

His desk phone rang, and he picked it up. “Madam Prime Minister.”

 

[Please focus on the world, First Name.]

 

Smiling, Jack sent a text back as the prime minster started in on the French president, her softly accented voice grumbling about the old Frenchman.

 

I’ve always been good at multi-tasking.

 

* * *

 

Everyone finally left his office after six PM.

 

Exhaling, Jack folded his arms across his desk and rested his forehead on his wrists. The summit was coming up fast, only days away, and everything seemed to be fraying at the edges. The French, the Russians, and the refugees in Europe, terror attacks going off, protests raging overseas.

 

Sometimes, being the president wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He’d wanted to heal the world, but the world stubbornly refused to be healed. At best, he was just trying to put Band-Aids over bullet holes and play whack-a-mole with flare-ups around the world. It was hard to get traction when he felt like all he was doing was playing the world’s largest game of Twister.

 

And at the end of every day, he flopped face-first into bed and did it all over again in the morning.

 

Another lonely night stretched in front of him. Eating alone, reading a few briefings, and then catching some TV until he fell asleep on the couch. Then he’d stumble to his bedroom, and everything would repeat itself.

 

But, maybe it didn’t have to be that way.

 

He pulled out his phone, opening up Ethan’s text messages. Was it selfish, asking Ethan to hang out with him? Ethan spent a lot of time at the White House as it was, between working and their clandestine friendship. Some days, the promise of seeing Ethan later was the goal he trudged forward for. And their texts always made him smile, even when nothing else did.

 

That’s what friends did for each other. What Ethan did for Jack, for sure.

 

He hoped he was half as good a friend to Ethan as Ethan was to him.

 

Did Ethan look forward to when they hung out? He swallowed, and a frown settled over his features as dark thoughts edged into his mind. Did Ethan see their time together as another one of his duties? Was this all…just a big show?

 

No. No, he couldn’t think that. Not with the way Ethan had looked when he’d given his cell phone number. Terrified, and hopeful, and possibly constipated, too. Wide-eyed but pushing forward.

 

I’m beat. I can’t do this President thing any more today. I need to call it a day before I get punchy and pull a Reagan.

 

He tapped at his desk and hovered over his phone, waiting for Ethan’s response.

 

[Go home, First Name. You have the best commute of anyone.]

 

Jack grinned. He loved Ethan’s nickname, his own typo turned into a playful jab. Ethan had never once bent on calling him Jack, but this was a good compromise. It felt special, at least.

 

Or the worst. People have a habit of finding me when I want to hide.

 

Ethan’s text came back almost instantly. [Playing hide and seek as the president is not advised. We tend to get a little bitchy when that happens.]

 

LOL I bet. Hey, come on up? I feel like banging some balls around and having a few drinks.

 

He bit his lip. Ethan could have plans. Maybe he had something else to do other than hang around at his office after he was done with a full day of work. He had a life outside the White House, unlike Jack.

 

[You know, I’m really glad you have a speechwriter, sir. 🙂 Lemme finish up a few things here. Then I’ll slip up the east stairs.]

 

Jack beamed. Ha! Jokes! I’ll make sure to not push a chair in front of your secret passageway. See you later!

 

* * *

 

“If there’s any president who could get us through this time, it’s you.”

 

Ethan gazed down at Jack, his eyes burning into him. Ethan’s hands were on his shoulders, his thumbs stroking gently, and there was something about what he was doing that fitted right into Jack’s soul.

 

All of his grinding anxieties, the fears weighing down his days, and Ethan made them vanish with his quiet conviction, the confidence he had in Jack. How had he earned that? This man who had guarded presidents before him, had seen the rise and fall of their administrations and legacies, and here he was, reassuring Jack when the monsters started to nibble on his worries.

 

Ethan was a far, far better friend than he was.

 

“Thank you, Ethan.” He smiled, trying to convey what he couldn’t say in his smile. His gratitude, for one. How deeply he admired Ethan. How much his friendship meant. “You don’t know how much I really do value you.”

 

Ethan’s smile hardened, for a moment. He swallowed and then nodded to the pool table. “Can I distract you? How about a game?”

 

“Yes. Definitely.” Jack stood as Ethan moved off, heading for the table and racking the balls. Tonight was going to be all about Ethan. Enough of himself, for once. Ethan deserved better than to have to reassure him when they should be relaxing. “And no more talk about this. I want to hear something different.”

 

Stepping back, Ethan squinted at him.

 

Jack grabbed his pool stick. “Pour yourself a drink and tell me stories about you.”

 

“Me? You don’t want to hear about my stories.”

 

Smiling, Jack lined up for the break, watching Ethan reach for the whiskey. He wanted to learn more about Ethan, learn everything there was to know about the man. What he liked, what he did in his free time. What he dreamed of. What he wanted for his life.

 

Two solids sank in the pockets.

 

“Solids again. Come on. Try to distract me while I shoot.” He winked at Ethan and rounded the table.

 

“I’m really not that interesting.” Ethan’s voice came from behind him, slightly strangled.

 

Impossible. Ethan was one of the most captivating men Jack had ever met. The history he’d seen, and the perspective he had. The way he saw the world, the real world, and his bedrock-deep confidence. The convictions he had in his soul. Ethan was as steady and solid a person as the foundations of the world. Men like him didn’t show up every day. He was unique. Special. A treasure.

 

And he didn’t see that in himself at all. Which made him all the more amazing in Jack’s book. Humble, when he had no business being so.

 

Well. Maybe he’d tease Ethan into talking. It had worked in the past. Their lunch in his private office had been the most fun Jack had had in years.

 

Wagging his eyebrows, he made a show of sauntering around the pool table and lining up for his next shot. He spread his legs, rocked his hips from side to side. Looked down the length of his stick and winked at Ethan.

 

Ethan stared, frozen and wide eyed.

 

“You know, you’ve been spending a lot of time here at the White House. Either working or spending time with me.” He bit his lip and shot, sinking the ball in the side pocket.

 

The next thought stung, but he needed to say it. “I don’t want to monopolize your time.” He studied the table, and the angles. “You said once you were a loner, but you’ve got to have some kind of social life.” I hope I’m not taking you away from your life. God, I hope I’m not that selfish. “Girlfriend?”

 

Silence, as he set up his next shot. His heart hammered.

 

“No girlfriend,” Ethan grunted. He cleared his throat. “Not that there ever would be. I’m gay, sir.”

 

Relief crashed through him, followed by surprise. So he wasn’t stealing Ethan’s time away. And—huh. He hadn’t considered the possibility before, but he felt stupid a moment after that thought, too. Why hadn’t he considered it? It was just as probable as anything else. All the different permutations and possibilities that made a person who they were, and he’d just assumed Ethan was straight. That was something the dinosaurs did, the politicians he always worked so hard to be different from.

 

Leaning back, Jack searched for his next shot. “Cool.” So, did Ethan have a special guy? Someone who treated him like the diamond he was. “No boyfriend, then?”

 

“No boyfriend.”

 

Part of him sighed, saddened to hear Ethan didn’t have someone. Being married—being a partner to his wife—had been the greatest part of his life so far. Loving someone, and being loved in return. Ethan should have that.

 

Another part of him, the selfish part, was relieved. He’d have chased Ethan out of there if Ethan had said he had a boyfriend. Would have chased him out and kept their friendship a little leaner. No way was he going to steal Ethan’s time away from someone he cherished.

 

“I met someone I think I’d like to be with though.”

 

He brightened, smiling at Ethan before he reached for his next shot. “Oh yeah?” The seven ball slipped into the side pocket. Only the eight ball was left. “What’s he like?”

 

“Brilliant.” Ethan’s voice choked, and he cleared his throat.

 

Grinning, he nodded and circled the table. This was promising. Someone had caught Ethan’s eye.

 

“He’s perfect,” Ethan continued, his voice low, almost wistful on the edges. “Brilliant, hilarious, confident. I think he can do anything.”

 

Whoa. This was more than a simple crush. Ethan was head over heels for this guy. He certainly sounded like something special. Only the best would do for Ethan, but this guy seemed to tick all the right boxes.

 

“He’s gorgeous too.” Ethan’s voice had dropped, turning husky.

 

“Wow.” Jack beamed. “Seems like a catch. And you, Ethan, sound smitten.” He tapped the corner pocket, and his heart skipped a beat. “Where’d you guys meet? And what are you going to do? Going to ask him out?” Jack winked, still smiling. “I suppose I can learn to share you.”

 

Maybe Ethan could bring him here. He’d love to meet whoever had captivated Ethan so profoundly. Would that be strange? Wasn’t that what friends did though, introduced their dates to their friends? Granted, the friend wasn’t usually the president. But, he wanted to support Ethan in this. He deserved it.

 

Jack made his last shot. The eight ball slid into the corner pocket.

 

He grinned, leaning against his pool stick. Ethan smiled back slowly, his eyes warm and wonderful, and catching the light of the game room until they glittered.

 

“’C’mon, Ethan. What are you going to do?”


 

Timestamp: Right after Ethan and Jack text for the first time, and Ethan goes to the Residence for a Saturday afternoon with Jack. And, we all know what happens after this scene. 🙂

 

 

 

What Were You Thinking? – Scott’s POV of Jack and Ethan’s Relationship-in-Hiding

 


Goddamn it, Ethan.

 

This was only going to end in disaster.

 

What the hell was his best friend thinking? Out of all the guys Ethan could have fallen for, he had to go and fall for the president of the United States.

 

When he’d first heard of Ethan’s crush, he’d mostly dismissed it. Daniels had brought him his concerns wrapped in a joke, a little teasing at Ethan’s expense. He’d gently prodded Ethan, and Ethan had laughed him away. Reassured him that everything was fine.

 

Like a sucker, he’d believed him.

 

And then Ethan had asked him, his voice almost shaking, about how straight people flirted, and everything came out. Every Goddamn thing—from how Ethan had fallen head over heels for the president to how twisted and confused he was, reading signs and signals into the president’s gregarious, effusive demeanor.

 

Spiers radiated friendliness. He was the most polite president they’d ever had served, both respectful and kind, and grounded in a way most politicians never were. Younger than most in the capital, Spiers was their first contemporary. A man from their generation. That in itself was rare. They could connect to him, to the president, in a way that was dangerous. Shared memories. Shared experiences.

 

Sure, there had been times when Scott had thought it would be nice to grab a beer and shoot the shit with Spiers. Ask about his thoughts on the Iraq War, the defining crux of their generation. Spiers was the one left behind when his wife had fought and died. He and Ethan had fought and lived. Different experiences. One war. Their generation, demarcated by desert winds, a grinding frustration, and a commitment to change everything.

 

So he could understand Ethan’s pull toward the guy, a bit. He seemed like a good man. Honest in a city of thieves. Friendly in a career of total assholes. Someone you’d want to spend time with. Pal around with.

 

Spiers was attractive, too, but most politicians who made it to the presidency were, in some way or another.

 

Scott got it. He got why Ethan would like the guy.

 

But Spiers was straight. Ethan knew it. He’d lamented about it in that car ride back from Camp David. He knew Spiers was straight, and he knew he wasn’t getting the signals he would if Spiers had been ready to jump Ethan’s bones and work on yet another sex scandal in the Oval Office.

 

The uncertainty of it all drove Ethan up the walls.

 

Spiers had seemed to be flirting. He’d seen it himself and had no idea what to make of the president’s actions. Quips to Ethan in the motorcade. The two of them side by side in the West Wing, chatting softly, heads together. He caught Jack winking at Ethan once, and Ethan stood stock still outside the Cabinet Room, gobsmacked and fidgeting and out of sorts for hours.

 

Hell, Spiers had even catered a private lunch for Ethan in his study.

 

Ethan had been disgusting after that, floating on cloud nine with a smile almost splitting his face in half. He’d been so freaking happy.

 

He kept an eagle watch on Ethan. Saw him checking his cell phone and trying to hide his smile. Saw Spiers’s eyes wandering, searching for Ethan. Saw Ethan in the tunnels under the Residence after hours, and his car still in the basement parking garage until almost midnight.

 

He wasn’t a stupid man. So he hadn’t been totally shocked when everything came out in Prague. Ethan’s hare-brained plan to take Spiers out to a bar. How Spiers’s eyes had watched Ethan when Ethan wasn’t looking. The way Ethan was drenched in misery, wafting off of him like a slowly breaking tidal wave, devastating everything in its path.

 

Spiers’s joke in that bar. His shitty, stupid joke.

 

It was like a bubble burst, and between Ethan’s outrage and Spiers’s crestfallen expression, Scott had put the pieces together. Rage tore through him, fury at the risks Ethan was taking with his career and his life. He would lose it all. Lose everything he’d worked for. As much as he wanted Ethan to find a good man and settle down from his bachelor ways, there were limits to what he was willing to see Ethan endure.

 

And that was way, way over the line.

 

But when they landed back in the States, something had changed. Ethan was happy. Exhausted, worn thin at the edges, but happy. Happier than he’d ever seen him.

 

Watching Ethan smile at Spiers—and Spiers smile back at him—confirmed his suspicions. He called Ethan out on it, growled and grumbled and bitched, but in the end, he’d offered to help.

 

Someone needed to watch Ethan’s back, Goddamn it. Ethan wasn’t watching his own, so whatever he could do to help salvage Ethan’s career, what he’d worked so damn hard for and was willing to put on the line for this one man. It was amazing, what Ethan was willing to risk. The highest position in the Secret Service detail. And he’d earned it, fair and square, through his hard work and professionalism. He’d proved all of the doubters, all of the homophobes, wrong. An openly gay man, proud, single, and living large, had taken the reins of the detail.

 

And had promptly fallen head over heels.

 

Eight weeks. He’d been watching Ethan and Spiers for eight weeks after Prague, and their terrible attempts at hiding what was between them. God, he could see right through their little charade.

 

The way Ethan would wait for Spiers after meetings, taking over from a junior agent just so he could walk with the president from one room to another in the West Wing.

 

The way Spiers’s eyes would light up when he saw Ethan, each and every time.

 

The way Ethan would rest his hand on Spiers’s lower back, escorting him through doorways and around corners and down hallways, when he didn’t need to at all.

 

The way Spiers sought Ethan out, and when he found him he beamed, everything in him turning toward Ethan.

 

The way Ethan’s car languished in the garage, day after day after day, never moving. Jesus, was the guy spending every night at the White House?

 

He’d growled for Ethan to give him his damn keys, and he moved Ethan’s car before the dust settled on his windows and anyone else noticed.

 

The way they smiled at each other. Held each other’s gazes, long, lingering looks before glancing away, almost flushed. The way Spiers sometimes bit his lip after those moments, and Ethan hovered just a little too close. The private conversations. Ethan spending unnecessary time in the Oval Office and Spiers’s study, and sneaking away on Air Force One into the conference room with the president when he spread out on the big table. Them just hanging out together, with no excuses, during the day. In the halls. In the West Colonnade, overlooking the Rose Garden. Drinking coffee in the Mess, taking their sweet time and laughing together.

 

And that was only what he saw. What happened up in the Residence, after Ethan pretended to leave and slipped off through the tunnels, he didn’t want to know.

 

* * *

 

Monday morning, two months after Ethan and Spiers had gotten together, he found Ethan sitting at his desk in Horsepower—supposedly reading shift reports and the squeal sheets, but instead, staring into the middle distance with a disgustingly sweet smile curving his lips.

 

Snorting, Scott collapsed in his swivel chair and rolled in front of Ethan’s desk. Their desks were arranged in rows, a neat grid facing the front screen and the displays and camera feeds of the White House grounds. It was early morning, and Horsepower was empty, the agents coming on grabbing coffee and chatting before the morning brief.

 

Ethan started, his smile vanishing, and he glared at Scott, clearing his throat and shuffling his papers, as if he was actually doing work.

 

That grin couldn’t be contained, though. It sneaked back onto his face a half minute later.

 

“Ah ha.” Scott chucked a wadded up ball of paper at Ethan’s face. “I knew it.”

 

Ethan batted the paper away, flushing. “Knew what?”

 

“You’re ridiculously happy this morning.”

 

There was that smile again. Ethan fought it, his lips twisting like a gymnastic routine. He gave up, leaning back in his chair with a sigh as he finally smiled and crossed his hands in his lap. “Had a good weekend.” His thumbs tapped against one another, self-satisfaction leaching from his every pore.

 

Scott rolled his eyes, almost hurting himself. “I don’t want to know, do I?”

 

Ethan shook his head, still grinning like a damn idiot.

 

“You two…” Scott snorted and laced his hands behind his head. Squinted at Ethan. “You good? I mean, you know. With…” He bobbed his head and shrugged his shoulders, trying to say it without words.

 

Swallowing, Ethan leaned forward, balancing his arms on the edge of his desk. The lighthearted banter fled, and the air in Horsepower turned heavy, filled with unspoken words and the weight of their secret.

 

“It scares me,” Ethan started, his voice low, looking up at Scott from under his eyelashes.

 

“What does?” Scott interrupted, frowning as his voice dropped to a growl. “What’s he doing to you?” If Spiers was hurting Ethan, president or not, he’d tear him limb from limb.

 

“No.” Ethan glared. “Not like that. He’s—” Ethan swallowed and pressed his lips together. His eyes softened, and his voice dropped again, almost to a whisper. “He’s perfect, Scott. Everything about him. I’m so fucking crazy about him.”

 

Scott’s eyes went wide, and he froze in his chair, no longer rocking. Damn. He’d never seen Ethan this far gone for anyone. At best, he’d hear of a guy Ethan had picked up one night, and when he remembered to ask about him again, Ethan would always smile and ask, “Who?”

 

“It scares me how good this is,” Ethan continued. “You know I don’t do this. Relationships. Never wanted one. But…with him…”

 

The door to Horsepower buzzed, and three of the younger agents badged their way in, laughing together and clutching their coffees. They nodded to Scott and Ethan and then headed to their desks, logging into their laptops and settling in for the morning brief.

 

Ethan leaned back, clearing his throat, and his stony mask descended, wiping away that boyish, stupidly-in-love grin he’d been sporting.

 

Shit. Realization slammed into Scott. Love. Fuck, he is in love.

 

“Ho-ly shit,” he whispered, almost singsonging.

 

Ethan arched an eyebrow at him, back to flipping through the squeal sheets.

 

“You’ve got it so bad.” Scott smiled wide. “You’re in love with the guy.”

 

He expected Ethan to deny it. To blow him off, or tell him that was way too soon. He did not expect Ethan to blush a furious crimson, staining his cheeks and his neck all the way past his starched white collar and beneath his tie.

 

“Shut up,” Ethan grumbled. That smile was back, trying to turn up the edges of Ethan’s mouth.

 

“Ho-ly shit.” Scott chuckled at Ethan and watched his blush darken.

 

And then, the reality of their situation landed in his lap as Ethan tossed over a squeal sheet with a report of “suspicious noises” in the subbasements and the tunnels beneath the Residence, late in the night.

 

“Check that out?” Ethan’s voice was strained, and he held Scott’s gaze for a moment too long.

 

And there it was. As awesome as it was that his best friend was in love and had finally found a guy that spun his wheels, no one could ignore reality forever. Ethan sneaking around in the Residence was bound to catch up to him, sooner or later.

 

“Checked.” Scott passed it back. “Nothing to report. Must have been a mistake.”

 

There were only so many times that they could cover like this.

 

He didn’t let go when Ethan reached for the report. Instead, he leaned in and dropped his voice. “How long do you think you guys can keep this up? Running around in shadows? Hiding from everybody? Which—” He shook the paper they both held. “You’re doing a shit job of it. And, I swear to God, something is going to come up that’s too big to hide. Something, somehow, and it won’t be able to be swept under the rug like this. When’s it gonna give?” He let the report go and sat back with a long sigh.

 

Ethan tucked the squeal sheet back into his pile, obsessively aligning the pages, making the stack straight. He wouldn’t look up, wouldn’t look at Scott. “I’ll keep this going forever, if I can,” he finally said, his voice grating, almost like a whisper. “And if one day, it all comes out…” Ethan paled, his lips tightening. “Then maybe we won’t have to hide anymore. Maybe we could just…be together.”

 

“Yeah.” Scott snorted loudly. “That will be the day. You and him, out in the open? Him in the White House?” He whistled, low, and stood. “I hate to say it, but I don’t see that happening, bubba. There are some things that I just don’t think the world can handle yet.”

 

Ethan’s eyes tightened. He swallowed, his Adam’s apple rising and falling slowly, above the knot of his tie.

 

More agents were badging into Horsepower, filling in the desks and standing in the back ready for Ethan’s morning brief. Ethan stood, spinning his laptop on the desk and calling up the briefing he’d put together. Short meeting for the day. With no trips planned and a quiet weekend behind them, they’d be in and out in twenty minutes.

 

Watching Ethan, Scott saw the tension settle back into his muscles. Saw the storm clouds darken in his eyes. His jaw clench and hold.

 

Now he felt like a jackass.

 

“Hey.” Crossing his arms, he bumped Ethan with his shoulder. “There’s always after his presidency.” He shrugged. “Get a little house… White picket fence… A dog with a diamond collar… Minivan…” He winked.

 

Ethan shoved him, but then he smiled, and some of the tension left his shoulders. “Sounds good to me, actually.”

 

Scott rolled his chair back to his desk, shaking his head. “You’re disgusting.” He added on a wink, though, just for Ethan.

 

The morning brief got started after that, Ethan rolling through the agenda and catching up on the intel reports and what his teams over the weekend had reported. As predicted, the rest of the agents were out of Horsepower within twenty minutes, heading for their posts and relieving the agents before them.

 

Scott watched Ethan pull out his phone and swipe the screen on. Smile and chew on his lip. Type something back.

 

“I’ve got things here.” Scott leaned back on the edge of his desk and crossed his arms. “If you want to go. You know. Grab coffee.”

 

Ethan’s eyes said thank you in all the ways he never could.

 

Smiling, Scott nodded, and as Ethan passed him, Ethan reached out and grabbed his shoulder, squeezing once. “Scott—”

 

“Just be careful, all right?”

 

“We will.”


Timestamp: Two months after Prague. The Monday before the nuclear attack in Nairobi.