High Holy Halloween – Jack & Ethan’s first Halloween together

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! And, Happy Halloween! This week, we’re tagging along with Jack and Ethan, and the first Halloween they truly get to experience together. Happy Reading!


 

Jack plopped down on the couch in their home office. He watched Ethan, frowning at their computer screen and plucking at the keyboard. Jack had taken care of the legalities involved in their new company, but Ethan was working through the operational logistics.

He needed a break.

“So… what are we doing for Halloween?”

Ethan froze. His eyes flicked up, over the monitor, and fixed on Jack. “Halloween?”

“It’s a week away.” Jack shrugged. “We were separated last year.” He’d been holding down the White House, handing out candy to underprivileged kids from DC who were bussed in to trick or treat around the rooms of the White House. Ethan had been in Des Moines, sitting alone in his apartment. He didn’t get any trick or treaters.

“I didn’t think you would be interested in doing anything for Halloween.”

“What? I’m not anti-Halloween. Do you think we’ll get any trick or treaters? We could decorate the yard. Maybe dress up for anyone who comes by?”

Ethan lowered his head, hiding his smile.

Jack squinted. “What? What did I say…”

“It’s me.” Ethan shook his head, still smothering his grin. “My mind went somewhere else. Sorry.”

“Where’d your mind go?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Ethan.” Jack leaned forward. He frowned. “What were you thinking I meant?”

Ethan sighed. He sat back, folding his arms. Licked his lips. Looked over Jack’s shoulder as he bit his lower lip. “Halloween is… one of the high holy days for gay culture.” His eyes snapped to Jack’s. “It’s our holiday. For gay people, I mean,” he said, gesturing to himself.

He conspicuously didn’t gesture to Jack.

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it. It’s one night a year when everyone is campy. Everyone is encouraged to be outrageous. Everyone can put on a costume and go a little crazy. For us, for a lot of our lives, it’s the one night we can be… free.” Ethan’s voice dropped.

Jack’s spine snapped straight. His mouth worked, but he couldn’t find the right words to say. He’d stumbled into something, something deep, something he hadn’t expected to find in a night of candy and pumpkins and glitter.

“I remember when I was a kid, really, really young. I guess I was more effeminate. I remember my teachers in Kindergarten and first grade telling me to stop acting like a girl. That that wasn’t how little men acted.” Ethan swallowed, looking somewhere beyond the center of the computer monitor. “But on Halloween, I could be anything. And I was. One year, in second grade, I think, I was Dorothy. My dad was the Scarecrow.” He smiled, but the edges of his lips turned down.

Jack breathed fast through his mouth. His hands squeezed the couch cushion, hard enough that his knuckles ached.

“Halloween has always been the one night that we could feel normal. Because the world around us was crazy, and everyone was being something they weren’t. It was like… being Alice in Wonderland. For one night, we didn’t have to pretend to be straight. We could be as gay as we wanted, and it was just Halloween. Everyone was crazy. Straight people, too.”

“Are… you talking about when you were in the Army? Or before? Growing up?”

Ethan nodded. He still wouldn’t look at Jack. “Yeah. When I was in high school. I always made everyone laugh because I always came in some kind of ridiculous drag. I was the big football linebacker, and there I was, in an off the shoulder evening gown from Goodwill.” Ethan snorted, laughing. He tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling. “In the army, if we were stateside, I would sneak out of base. Drive a hundred miles and find someplace where I could get lost. Be myself, for one night of the year.”

“You came out, though. Right? After?” Jack was hunting for the happy, desperately searching for the moment Ethan clawed his way out of the despairing edge of his memories. Ethan hadn’t ever shared much of his past, especially not his younger years. The Ethan Jack knew was confident in himself, sure of who he was in the world. Self-doubt was something alien to Ethan, something Jack had never seen.

“I did. I didn’t want to go through life that way anymore. So, I came out the day I started at the Secret Service.” Finally, Ethan looked at Jack. “It was hard,” he said softly. “But it was better than being in the closet.”

Jack bit his lip. “Did you still go out for Halloween?”

“Every year.” Ethan smiled. “For one night, I could be anything. Even myself.”

Jack’s heart cracked. “I didn’t think you ever hid yourself. You were out, and you were proud… You said so…”

“Every gay man hides parts of himself.”

“Even now?”

Ethan was quiet. He frowned. Stared at his keyboard. “No,” he finally said. “No, I don’t think so. Everything came out some way. Between the newspapers and the Congressional inquiry—”

Jack buried his head in his hands. “God, I’m sorry, Ethan. I’m so sorry.” Why had Ethan even put up with him? Why had he ever agreed to “figure something out” with Jack? Ethan had lost everything, everything he’d spent a lifetime building. He’d been exposed, brutalized in public. Was Jack’s love truly worth all of that? He felt woefully inadequate, a feather on one side of the scale weighed against Ethan’s sacrifices.

“Don’t be sorry.” Ethan’s voice was soft. “This, our love? This is freedom.”

Jack’s throat clenched, words lodged against the shards of his shame.

“I’m happy, Jack. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. With you. And, being me. Really being me.”

Slowly, Jack nodded. It took a few tries, but he finally swallowed the lump in his throat, finally breathed in without tears shimmering in his gaze. “Thank you,” he whispered, “for sharing. I had no idea Halloween was so important to you.”

“It is and it isn’t.” Ethan shrugged. He squinted. “I mean, yeah, I felt free on Halloween. I could be me. But most of the time that meant I was getting crazy at a club. I was trying to get lucky.”

Jack laughed. The weight in the air fizzled, rising like bubbles that made Jack dizzy. “How’d that go for you?”

Blushing, Ethan shrugged. His cheeks turned cherry red, and he swept at a speck of dust on the desktop.

Jack laughed again, long and loud. Ethan’s expose, the vivisection of his sexual history, was a thing of the past. Ancient history. Yes, once, Ethan had been a player. But Jack had let go of the fear that article had planted in his heart sometime between realizing Ethan was the man he wanted to spend the rest of his life with and whispering his wedding vows to Ethan on the Honolulu, in the frigid waters of the Arctic circle. Somehow, Ethan had fallen for Jack. Out of everyone in the world, Ethan chose Jack. He’d beat all the other men who’d ever tried to capture his heart. How was he that lucky?

“So what did you dress up as? When you’d go out?”

If possible, Ethan’s blush flared brighter, as if someone had put him under a ruby spotlight. He coughed. Wouldn’t meet Jack’s gaze.

Jack scooted to the edge of the couch. “Oh, this is going to be good…”

Fumbling, Ethan laughed helplessly, stumbling over syllables before he spoke. “Gay guys are kinda… shameless… especially about our bodies…”

“Oh, I know.” Jack winked. Visions of Ethan in his tiny bathing suit flashed in his mind. Itty bitty white fabric, Ethan’s tan skin, his broad, furred chest. Ethan still sometimes slipped out to tan at a salon. He maintained his body, his appearance in a way that made Jack’s head swim. Jack still had to remind himself to trim his nose and ear hairs, and get a haircut. Ethan’s hair was perfect, always, and Jack had never seen an errant hair on his body.

“Uhh… sexy army guy worked for a few years…”

“Sexy army guy?!” Jack’s eyebrows shot straight up.

Ethan coughed, pitching forward as he laughed. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this!”

“You cannot stop now. C’mon. Spill. What does ‘sexy army guy’ look like?”

“You know…” Ethan shrugged. He stared at Jack, embarrassment making him squirm. He snorted, almost giggling. “I cut up some old army pants and made them really short shorts. Wore the jacket, but left it open. Combat boots.”

Jack could picture it. Ethan’s long, long legs on display, his chest framed by camo. His trim waist, hugged by a tiny scrap of fabric. His mouth dried out, and his cock stirred.

Ethan stared at him. “One year, I wore a leather harness with it.”

Jack’s breath hitched.

“Sexy federal agent was a big hit, too. Same idea, just with a business suit. I wore a tie, too.”

Jack whimpered. He closed his eyes. Bit his lip.

Ethan laughed. “I might have to cut up an old suit for you…” He winked.

Lightning slammed into Jack, desire that went from his belly to his brain. He couldn’t decide what he wanted. Wrestle Ethan out of his costume, take his time exploring his body, opening him up, and loving him until Ethan screamed his name at the top of his lungs. Or, let Ethan scoop him up, press him into the mattress, kiss every part of Jack until he was a shivering mess, and then lose his mind to the stars as Ethan made love to him. Could he have both?

Breathing deep, Jack opened his eyes. He saw Ethan laughing, saw his open happiness, the hint of a flush on his cheeks. Saw joy in Ethan’s gaze.

“Let’s go out for Halloween. Like that. To a club together.”

Ethan sobered so fast Jack thought he’d hurt himself. From laughing to serious, as serious as Ethan had been in the White House. He leaned forward, almost scowling. “Jack… what?”

Part of him wanted to take it back. Did Ethan not want to do that with Jack? Was that part of his life off limits to Jack?

No. They were married. They shared everything. Ethan wouldn’t push Jack away, not from this. Not from anything. “Let’s go out, to a club. We’ve never done that. You used to go out a lot, before. I want to do it with you.” He smiled. “Let’s go out for Halloween. Like you used to. It’s our holiday, right?”

Ethan’s jaw dropped. He blinked, but said nothing. “Are… you sure you want to do that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Gay clubs can be… intense. They’re our spaces. We can be free there. Free to express ourselves in… every way. A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that.”

“You think I’d be freaked out by guys having a good time together? I expect we’ll be having just as good a time.”

Ethan flushed. “Things can get… kinky.”

“Cool.” Jack grinned. He sobered, though, standing and reaching for Ethan’s hand across the desk. “We’ve never had that. Have we ever just cut loose? Had a crazy wild time together?”

“Your birthday was great.”

“But you were worried about our image, and the press, and how it would look in the papers. We have nothing to worry about now. There’s no image to take care of. We’re us. Just us. Let’s celebrate that.”

Ethan watched him for a long moment. “I don’t want you to be overwhelmed.”

“I don’t want to hide from our culture. I love you, Ethan. I’m in love with a man. I want to embrace that.”

Ethan looked away. “You could have avoided all of this. The attacks against you, the rumors, the gossip, the way they talk about us. If we hadn’t gotten together—”

“Then I’d never have found out how truly happy I could be in life. I’d never have found what I really want in this life: you, and us, and everything that goes with that.”

Silence. Ethan picked at the edge of the desk, chewing on his bottom lip. “What would you want to dress up as?” he finally asked, quietly.

Jack beamed. “You.”

“What?”

“Sexy Secret Service agent. And I want to protect the sexy president.” He winked. “Will you dress up as my sexy president?”

Ethan’s jaw dropped again. “Even going to a gay club is going to be crazy enough, but you want to dress sexy, too?” He frowned. “I don’t know how I feel about other people getting to see you like that.”

Jack laughed. “It’s a good thing I have been fighting off your pizzas.” He patted his flat, firm stomach. “I have an old suit I can cut up. Can I borrow an old ear mic?” He watched Ethan shift, cross his legs. His smile grew. “You’d make a great sexy president.”

“I’d… have to wear your yellow tie.”

“That can be arranged.”

“We have to have detail agents with us. We have to have the Secret Service there.”

Jack sighed. His shoulders slumped.

“I’ll make sure we get the coolest agents in DC.” Ethan winked. “But I won’t be able to focus. Not if we’re out like that together.”

“Good.” Jack squeezed his hand. “I don’t want you working, or protecting me. I want us to have fun together.”

Ethan smiled.

“I’m going to go pull out my suit and start cutting. Want to help?”

Eyes twinkling, Ethan followed him to their closet. Hour and hours later, they finally had their costumes… after a detour or two back to the bedroom.

 

* * *

 

Halloween night, Ethan opened their front door and found Welby and Beech standing on their stoop. Beech had a mile-wide grin. Welby looked like the cat that stole the canary.

Ethan wanted to shut the door on their faces.

“You two are not the coolest agents in the DC Secret Service.”

Beech laughed. “We’re the ones who won the arm wrestling contest for this detail.”

“Arm wrestling contest?”

“It was almost leg wrestling. Daniels doesn’t play fair.”

“What the hell?”

Welby finally spoke up. “It’s you guys. Everyone always wants to work you guys.”

“You… do know where we’re going, right?”

“Everyone wants to be on your detail. No matter what.” Welby held out his hand. “Good to see you again, sir.”

Ethan shook his hand, then Beech’s, and let them in. “Grab a soda and anything you want in the kitchen. Jack and I are getting ready.” His two former coworkers wandered inside, eyeballing his and Jack’s new DC house. Ethan sprinted back upstairs.

His hands shook, his palms slick with sweat. Ants crawled under his skin, and he felt like he’d just run a marathon. Adrenaline and apprehension warred with in him. He hadn’t been out since he and Jack had started texting, back at the White House. He hadn’t wanted to chase any other guy, not once, not since he’d fallen for Jack. Now Jack wanted to go out, dive into the deepest part of the deep end of the gay pool. Would Jack get freaked out? He’d sucked up everything about life with Ethan so far. But he’d never faced gay culture so squarely, had never inserted himself into a world that, to be realistic, he didn’t have to be a part of. Jack wasn’t gay. He was just in love with Ethan.

Jack was in their bathroom, styling his hair. He’d debated between going for stern conservatism, mimicking a true Secret Service agent, or going all out with his sexy costume. He finally decided on going all out, and his hair was styled into messy spikes. He looked dangerous, and damn sexy. Ethan’s throat clenched as he watched from the door.

Jack lined his eyes with eyeliner next, and spread a sheen of highlighter on his cheekbones. They seemed carved from his face when he was done, arches that Ethan could fall in love from all over again. His eyes popped, the dark liner making every glance Ethan’s way seem to smolder. His legs were toned and hairless. He’d shaved, and they seemed to go on forever. Every other moment, Ethan reached for Jack’s thigh, stroking the warm skin beneath his cut up suit.

He was shirtless, and Ethan’s old ear mic stretched from his ear to his jacket’s collar.

He was hotter than Ethan had imagined, more gorgeous than he’d dreamed. Beyond his body, toned to the best physical perfection of his life, it was his joy, his boisterous excitement, and his confidence that melted Ethan’s soul.

Please, let this last.

“Ethan, your turn. You have to get dressed.” Jack pretended to pout, winking. “We don’t want to be late.”

“It’s a club. There’s no such thing as late.”

“I’m excited. I want to go.”

“I am going to need a drink first.” Dutch courage, and some liquid control, or he’d never get out of the house. Not with Jack looking like that.

He changed into his own cut up suit. Jack tied his yellow tie around Ethan’s neck. Ethan’s hands strayed to Jack’s waist, rubbing circles into his warm skin.

Ethan spiked his hair as well, though not as high as Jack’s. He put on a tinted lip moisturizer, plumping his lips to a full, dusky pout, but bypassed the eyeliner. He’d never look as good as Jack did.

Ethan poured a shot of bourbon from their bedroom dry bar, knocking it back as he watched Jack tie his boots on.

They wrapped up in trench coats, hiding their outfits as best they could. They couldn’t hide their bare lower legs and boots, though. They looked like fabulous flashers. Oh well. At least it was just to and from the car.

“Beech and Welby are here.”

Jack froze. He stared at Ethan, both eyebrows arched.

“They apparently ‘won’ the challenge to get tonight’s detail.”

Jack’s face flushed. But, he held out his hand for Ethan. “Ready?”

Ethan’s heart skipped a beat. He trembled from head to toe. But, he clasped Jack’s hand tight. “Ready.”

They headed downstairs together, and Beech and Welby wandered out of the kitchen, Beech holding a diet soda and munching on a cookie. Both agents looked them up and down, but didn’t say a word.

“Let’s head out.” Welby gestured to the door.

This was it. Ethan squeezed Jack’s hand again, hard. They wouldn’t be able to take this back, after they did it. The internet, and infamy, was forever.

They headed for the SUV on the curb, Beech climbing into the driver’s seat and Welby taking the command position. Jack and Ethan slid into the backseat. “Travel time to Club Divine is twenty-one minutes.” Welby looked back and forth between them, and then turned back to face the front. He rolled up the privacy partition.

Ethan looked at Jack. Jack stared back.

Ethan reached for Jack’s leg, pushing the trench coat open. His skin, so warm and smooth, seemed to glow. Like a magnet, he was drawn to Jack, and his hand stroked up the inside of his thigh. Jack shivered.

Ethan moaned.

Their eyes met.

They met in the middle, kissing like they needed to to live, to breathe. Jack’s hands wound into Ethan’s hair, and Ethan cradling Jack’s cheek in one hand as he kept stroking Jack’s thigh. Jack’s legs opened, and he turned, lying back on the bench seat. He pulled Ethan down on top of him, the kiss never breaking. Ethan’s body was on fire, every part and piece of him wanting to climb inside Jack and burrow into his love forever. Jack was perfection, shivering beneath his touch, his kisses. He could never get enough.

Welby called over the intercom when they got near. “Three minutes until arrival.”

They hadn’t gone crazy, hadn’t descended into a frenzied madness of ripping off clothes and trying to blow each other in the back seat. They’d been slower, rocking together, enjoying the feel of each other in their arms. Still, Ethan felt like he died a little as he pulled back, out of Jack’s embrace, and sat back on the seat.

Jack grinned and wiped his thumb over Ethan’s lips. “Your lip gloss smeared.”

“Your eyeliner wings are a little smudged.” Ethan tried to wipe away the stray black marks on Jack’s cheeks.

“It’s okay. Everyone knows the sexy president kisses his sexy secret service agent in the limo.” Jack winked.

And then they were there, pulling up to the club. Ethan had reached out to the owners and asked for a private entrance through the back, away from the crowds. The owners had fallen over themselves being considerate. They met the SUV by the owner’s entrance in the back alley. One man covered half his face with his hands, bouncing on his feet. The other couldn’t stop smiling as the SUV pulled to a stop.

“Ready?” Jack kissed the back of Ethan’s hand.

Butterflies danced in Ethan’s veins. “Ready.”

They hopped out, after Welby opened the door. The owners shook their hands, looking they were meeting movie stars. They took their coats as they ushered Jack and Ethan into the club. “We’ll hold onto your coats in our office,” the first man said. He shook, just slightly, like an excited puppy. “If you need anything, anything at all, we’re here for you.” He bounced and bit his lip. “I’m just so excited you both decided to come out to our club.”

“Thank you for having us. And for being so accommodating.” Jack squeezed Ethan’s hand. “We heard great things about this place.” It was somewhere neither of them had ever been. Something brand new, just for them.

The second owner looked like he was about to faint. “Let’s get you out there, having a great time. Down this hallway, through the door. You’ll be at the back of the VIP area. You can come in and out of this entrance anytime you want. You have a private lounge in the VIP section, and bottle service. On the house.”

Ethan smiled as Jack thanked them again. He’d already told Welby to leave a healthy tip for the owners, enough to pay for the VIP lounge and bottle service, and more on top of that.

Welby kept his gaze fixed on their faces. “One of us will stay in the VIP area. The other will be with you at all times. We promise not to interfere in your evening, though.”

“Thanks, Agent Welby.” Jack bounced on his heels. “Let’s get out there!”

 

* * *

 

The club was everything Ethan expected: mostly naked men, half naked men, and shameless Halloween costumes. Fairies and vampires and sexy police officers, firefighters, construction workers, and everything else. Butterflies and men in leather, men in collars and leather harnesses. Glitter everywhere. Go-go dancers on platforms. Men twerking, dry humping, practically having sex as they danced together. Sweat and sex, the scents of men on the hunt. Testosterone choked the air, the heady scents of so many gay men, unbridled and free to express themselves.

Music blared, basslines pounding through the crowd amid pumping dance remixes. Lights flashed, a rainbow of strobe lights and spotlights beneath disco balls and black lights.

It was a cornucopia of men, of masculinity, of gayness. Ethan turned to Jack, hesitating.

Jack spun slowly, taking it all in, a smile breaking his face in two. He didn’t know where to look first, it seemed, and he tried to see everything, feel everything. “This is amazing!” he shouted into Ethan’s ear.

Relief seized Ethan, wrapping around his heart. Jack’s smile kept growing, and he kept gazing at the club, the people, the men letting loose. Being free, and being themselves. Happiness poured off Jack, giddiness and excitement.

A few guys around them were staring, whispering to each other. Their eyes were wide, like they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. One brave guy stepped forward, reaching for Ethan’s arm. “Are you… really… them? Like, actually Spiers and Reichenbach?”

Jack beamed. “We are!”

“Oh my god!” The man, dressed like a sexy butterfly in glitter paint and a tiny set of wings, clapped his hands over his mouth. One of his friends screamed. “Thank you,” he started blubbering, turning to Jack. “Thank you so much. Thank you for showing the world who you were. For not being scared, or disgusted. For accepting who you are, and who you love—” His voice choked off, and he shook his head, shook his hands next to his face. “Thank you for making us feel good about ourselves. For giving us a hero.”

Jack pulled the man close, folding him into a hug. His wings trembled as the man sagged into Jack’s arms, clinging to him. Welby stood opposite Ethan, bracketing Jack and watching the man’s every move.

Finally, he backed off, tears smearing his glitter face paint. He apologized to Jack, over and over, and retreated to his group. He blew a kiss, though, to Jack and then to Ethan.

Jack’s eyes were glassy as he turned to Ethan.

“Dance with me?” Ethan held out his hand. Jack took it, squeezing hard.

Dancing with Jack was a drug addiction. Jack sliding into his arms was a hit of the best intoxicant. The way his body fit against Ethan’s, the way they moved together. The way Jack’s eyes met his. The way their hearts beat as one.

This wasn’t dancing at the White House, though. They weren’t in tuxedoes. They weren’t on the world stage. They were in a gay club, and they were barely dressed.

Ethan’s hands slid down Jack’s back, to his ass. He squeezed, hard, and Jack pressed into his grip. His hands kept sliding, drifting over the tops of Jack’s thighs, the smooth skin beneath his cut offs.

Jack pressed closer to Ethan, pulling his suit jacket open. One hand wrapped around Ethan’s borrowed yellow tie. The other wrapped around Ethan’s neck, finger playing in his dark hair.

Time merged with the music, with the beats of the dance floor. Shimmering lights were their heartbeats, in time with the movements of their bodies. They synched, became one, grinding against each other on the dance floor. Kisses started and never ended. Hands stroked, traveling everywhere.

At some point, they broke for air, wandering back to the VIP lounge. Beech had a bottle of vodka on the table, unopened, and he broke the seal in front of them. A waiter poured vodka tonics, sneaking glances at them as they rested on the couch and held hands, catching their breath. Jack watched the crowd, eyes glittering. He kissed Ethan’s hand, his knuckles.

They headed back to the dance floor, vodka in their veins and hands roaming. As the music sped up, Jack spun, pressing his ass against Ethan’s crotch. Ethan wrapped his arms around Jack, kissing his shoulder, his neck, his jaw, before Jack twisted and captured Ethan’s lips in his own. He spun again, sliding his thigh between Ethan’s legs and pressed against the hardness there.

“If you keep that up, I’m going to lose it.” Ethan’s fingers dipped into the back of Jack’s waistband, stroking his ass.

Jack nibbled on his chin. “I want you. But I want more than a fumble on this dance floor.”

“Then it’s time to go.”

They made record time back to the VIP lounge. Beech got their coats and the car as Welby discretely waited at the back entrance, pretending to ignore the way Jack pressed Ethan against the wall and swallowed his tongue, wrapped his tie around his fist and stroked his chest. Ethan tried, and failed, to hold back from pressing their hips together, grind their erections until he couldn’t see.

Welby poured them both into the backseat of the SUV. He didn’t bother announcing the drive time, and he kept the partition raised.

It was everything Ethan could do to not strip Jack in the backseat, unwrap him, remove the sweat-soaked costume and brush off the glitter, kiss his way down Jack’s flushed chest, and bury himself between Jack’s legs. If he didn’t make love to Jack, that moment, he was going to explode. He held on to his sanity by the skin of his teeth.

Jack clung to him, his kisses his words, his hands his pleas. His shaking thighs wrapped around Ethan’s waist, and he breathed into Ethan’s ear, “Make love to me.”

Ethan gave himself forty-five seconds for the SUV to get back to their house before he started fulfilling Jack’s wish.

Somehow, Welby got them home, out of the car, and into the house before Ethan had Jack naked. Their jackets were gone, though, crumbled on the floor of the SUV.

Welby didn’t stick around after dropping them off. He opened their front door, watched Jack and Ethan stumble through the opening, kissing like they’d die if they stopped, and shut the door.

Ethan hefted Jack into his arms, carrying him up their steps two at a time. He dropped Jack on the bed, shedding his costume as Jack wriggled out of his. They met on the mattress, arching into each other, nothing between them, finally.

 

* * *

 

Sometime before dawn, Jack traced patterns on Ethan’s chest. His eyeliner was hopelessly smudged, a dark smear against his cheeks. Ethan rubbed up and down his back, his movements slow and languid.

“Thank you,” Jack breathed. “For tonight. I loved it, everything about it.”

“I was scared. I thought you wouldn’t like all… that.”

“All that gayness?”

Ethan swallowed. Jack felt it, felt Ethan’s body tighten.

“Ethan, there is absolutely nothing about you, about who you are, about what you like, that I don’t love and adore. There is nothing you should feel ashamed of. Nothing. I loved being out there with you.”

Ethan laced his hand through Jack’s, on his chest. He was quiet for a long time.

“Maybe… one day… we could go back?”

Jack smiled, big and bright. “I’d love that.”

 


 

Timestamp: Post EO, Jack & Ethan’s first Halloween together.

 

Excerpt from Kris’s Story

 

Hello! Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

I took a short hiatus last week, but we’re back better than ever! This week, I bring you an excerpt from Kris’s forthcoming novel. 🙂

Note: This section of Kris’s novel takes place immediately following the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Kris is two years into his employment with the CIA. Much of Kris’s story is based on real life events and people.


 

September 15th, 2001

Langley, Virginia

 

Carter Black shook him awake. “Get up. We’re going to see the president.”

He stumbled out of the cot in the basement command center of the CIA, almost falling on his face. Someone loaned him a fleece pullover with the CIA crest. He ditched his button-down and slid into the sweater. The arms were too long, but at least he didn’t stink anymore. He shaved and splashed water on his face, gargled some mouthwash, and met Carter Black at the east entrance.

A full motorcade waited for them.

“We’re going to the White House with the Director. He’s in the next SUV.”

“George Tabat? CIA Director?”

“Yes. The president wants to know everything about Afghanistan. Tabat said to bring the experts. That’s you.” Carter Black shifted, the dark leather creaking as the motorcade pulled away from Langley. “Kris, the president is getting ready to make a decision. We’re going to respond to these attacks, and we’re going to respond quickly. The CIA is going to do something we haven’t done since we were OSS, back in World War II. We’re going to go to war, and we’re going to lead this war. This is the last briefing before the president decides what our response is going to be.”

Kris sat stunned. He wasn’t ready for this. He wasn’t a presidential briefer. He was just an analyst. A junior CIA officer. But who was ever ready for their world to be upended, for planes to fall out of the sky, for buildings to tumble like blocks, and for the weight of thousands of lives to hang around your neck? Failure tasted like ash, like flame, like dust that filled his teeth and gathered at the junctures of his bones. Shame was his shadow, a bitter pill of regret he could never swallow.

He took a breath. “What do you need me to do, sir?”

“The president is a talker. He thinks with his thoughts. Goes with his gut. Tabat is good at talking him through things, thinking out loud. Audible cognition, of a sort. With this president, the last in-person briefing will usually be the deciding factor. He’s going to be listening to what you say, to any answers you give, very, very closely.”

“Who else will be there?”

“The president, the vice president, the national security advisor.”

Kris nodded. His mind whirled. It didn’t get any higher than that.

“Listen, the N-S-A and Tabat don’t get along. She’s a tough nut to crack. She and Tabat are like oil and vinegar. The V-P thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’ll go behind all our backs and double, triple check everything we say. Don’t worry about talking to them. Speak to the president.”

 

 

He could smell himself as they clambered out of the SUV at the secured entrance to the West Wing of the White House. Secret Service agents hustled them inside quickly, past the massive show of force the Secret Service had deployed. Agents with snarling dogs, rifles, and heavy weaponry were on full display, ready to destroy any intruder who dared bend a blade of grass on the White House lawn.

Kris tried to keep his arms down, hide his unwashed stench. He couldn’t do anything about the bags under his eyes, but hopefully the president wouldn’t remember him as ‘the smelly one’. He hadn’t been home in four days.

In the Oval Office, the president and vice president sat side by side before the great fireplace, with the national security advisor on the sofa beside the president. They stood, shook hands tersely, and beckoned Tabat, Black, and Kris to sit on the other sofa.

“Break it down for us,” the president said, lacing his fingers together. His Texas drawl was deep, a sign of his stress. “What do we have today?”

Director Tabat spoke urgently, summarizing everything the CIA had learned in the last twelve hours. He’d been briefing the president twice a day or more, since the attacks. Everything he shared, Kris had been a part of, working with the response team in the basement.

While Tabat spoke, the vice president stared at Kris, watching him closely. Kris stared back.

The president leaned back, his lips pursed as he frowned, thinking. “Musharraf in Pakistan has come around. He’s decided the Taliban aren’t worth committing political suicide over.”

“Good. We’ll need their full cooperation. Border posts and frontier bases along the border with Afghanistan opened up to American forces, a rescinding of all ‘no-go’ areas, unrestricted access to Pakistani airspace and full, unimpeded landing rights at all air bases and airports.” Tabat scrawled notes as he spoke.

“State is working on it.” The national security advisor’s voice was clipped, perfunctory.

The president’s gaze flicked to Kris. “Director Tabat says you’re the Agency’s number one Afghanistan analyst. That you know that country better than anyone. Tell me. Do you think the Taliban will give up Bin Laden?”

Everyone looked at him. Everyone.

The president had issued an ultimatum to the Taliban the day of the attacks: give up Bin Laden, or your government will be destroyed. Bin Laden had been granted refuge in Afghanistan since his exile from Sudan. As the president said, while smoke still rose from lower Manhattan and the Pentagon, any nation that harbored terrorists would be treated as an enemy. “You’re either with us or against us.”

What he said next would shape policy, shape the world. The unit secretary at CTC still couldn’t remember his name, even after two years working there, he was that inconsequential. Yet here he was, briefing the president. Deciding the course of history. His palms slicked with sweat. Ice flowed down his spine.

“Mr. President, the Taliban will never surrender Bin Laden.”

“Why?” The national security advisor frowned. “If they want to survive at all, they have to give him up.”

“It’s not the Pashtunwali way.” Everyone frowned. “The Taliban blend tribal traditions and fundamentalism Islam into their repressive form of totalitarian rule. It has less to do with Islam and more to do with Tribalism. Pashtunwali is their ethical code. Melmastia, hospitality and protection of all guests, nanawatai, the right of a fugitive to seek refuge within the tribe, and, badal, blood feuds and revenge.”

“Shit,” the vice president grumbled. “So he’s going to hide under the Taliban skirts and claim tribal law?”

“The Taliban and al-Qaeda aren’t friends. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, repeatedly ordered him to stop antagonizing the US. To stop giving interviews and drawing attention to themselves, and to the other Arab jihadist training camps. When Bin Laden pledged his allegiance to Mullah Omar, he was trying to pave over Omar’s complaints. But right after his pledge, he launched the embassy bombings in Africa. Mullah Omar was furious when the US attacked the training camps.”

“Why didn’t he kick Bin Laden out then?”

“Prince Turki of Saudi Arabia tried to convince Mullah Omar to hand him over. Muslim to Muslim. He flew to Afghanistan on a royal jet, on royal business. Mullah Omar threw him out. He said he was sickened to see the prince of an Islamic state, and the guardian of the two holy cities of Islam, doing the bidding of the ‘infidel West’. He accused the prince of being a takfiri, an apostate.”

“Bet that went down well,” the vice president grunted.

“Turki stomped on the feast Mullah Omar had spread out for them and stormed out.”

“So why not give him up now? If he didn’t want Bin Laden attacking the US, then why is he willing to die for him now?”

Kris swallowed, images from the attacks flashing in the darkness behind his eyes every time he blinked. Flame, smoke, and screams. Papers fluttering like rain, falling as if time had slowed. Ash blanketing the world. Bodies falling, jumping. He shook his head. “Bin Laden assassinated General Massoud September 10th. He sent two al-Qaeda bombers, posing as journalists, to his command center. They blew themselves up, and decapitated the leadership of the Northern Alliance, and the one man who was a serious threat to Mullah Omar. Under Pashtunwali, he paid Omar a blood debt, one they will be honor bound to return. They will never hand him over, Mr. President.”

Silence. The president stared at him, as if measuring his soul, taking the weight of his words. Finally, he nodded and sat back. “I don’t want to give the Taliban any maneuvering room on the world stage. We’re going to keep demanding they turn over Bin Laden. They’re demanding proof that he is responsible. What do we have that we can show the world?”

“Source reporting from Kandahar and Khost. Jubilation in the streets. Our intercepts before the attacks. We knew they were planning something. We just didn’t—” Tabat’s voice croaked, choked, and died. He looked down.

“Whatever we show as proof will be exposed, Mr. President. We cannot burn sources and methods at this time. Not right before a war.”

Kris jumped in. “There’s Yemen.”

“Yemen?” The vice president frowned.

“The USS Cole bombings. The FBI is running a fusion cell in country, working on prosecuting the attackers and conspirators in Yemeni courts. They have an al-Qaeda operative there, someone who used to be Bin Laden’s bodyguard, in jail. We could question him.”

The president nodded. “Get on it. I want confirmation for the world that Bin Laden was behind these attacks, something we can show off.”

“Everything comes down to our response,” the vice president said. “Everything. We have to find these terrorists, and we have to stop them. Wherever they are. By whatever means possible.”

“George,” the president said, turning to the CIA Director. “I want the CIA to be the first on the ground. As soon as possible.”

“Yes, Mr. President. We’re on our way.”

 

 

They hurried to the motorcade, waiting outside the West Wing. Tabat huddled with Black as Kris followed, herded by hulking Secret Service agents who bracketed him right and left.

Black waited for Kris as Tabat climbed into his SUV, already on the phone. “Kris, great job. Take the last SUV back to your place and pack a bag. You’re going to Yemen. You leave in three hours.”

 

September 17th, 2001

Sanaa, Yemen

 

Kris sweated in the backseat of a creaking Yemeni government SUV, roaring through Sanaa, Yemen’s capital. At one in the morning, the streets were deserted.

Since September 11th, all American officials moved at night, and under the glowering auspices of the Yemeni national police.

Carter Black had arranged for a private CIA jet to fly him directly to Yemen. He was the only passenger. He’d spent the fifteen-hour flight reading everything the FBI had on the al-Qaeda terrorist incarcerated in the Yemeni federal detention center.

Abu Tadmir was the former bodyguard of Bin Laden, and the emir, or leader, of one of the guesthouses for Arab fighters traveling to Afghanistan to join with al-Qaeda. His guesthouse was connected to the advanced tactics training camp where all of the hijackers had most likely received specialized instruction.

On the flight, Kris received a cable from Langley. One of the hijackers had stayed at the guesthouse. In fact, the hijacker was called “a friend” of the emir. They’d spent Ramadan together in 1999. They were close.

Finally, the SUV pulled up to at the federal detention facility. Two Americans in cargo pants, fleece vests, and ball caps waited inside the gates. Gold badges hung on chains around their neck.

“FBI,” his driver grunted. He didn’t sound thrilled to see the agents.

Both FBI agents stared him down through the SUV’s dusty glass as they pulled to a stop. They didn’t say a word, didn’t blink, just stared. They didn’t say hello as he climbed out of the SUV, or came to their side.

Kris hitched his briefcase higher on his shoulder. “I’m here to see Tadmir.”

Nothing. It was like the FBI agents were statues.

Finally, one agent glared, his eyes narrowing to slits. “You CIA guys have anything you want to pass along? You know, anything you haven’t shared that might save lives?”

The man’s words eviscerated him, sliced him from belly to heart. Everything in him wanted to scream, to vomit, to rip his hair from his head. The names of the hijackers flashed in his mind, cartoon exclamations that followed his every footstep.

He forced his voice to remain steady. Forced steel into his spine, when he wanted to collapse and beg for forgiveness. He had a job to do. And maybe, just maybe, there would be some measure of atonement at the end. “I am here on the orders of the president of the United States to get information from the al-Qaeda operative you have in custody. I am here to do my job.”

The FBI agents both snorted. “You guys really did a hell of a job.”

“I am here to help. Help everyone. Move forward, and do the right thing.” Fireballs bloomed behind his eyelids. A scream hovered on the edge of his mind. “You can help me, or you can get the hell out of my way.”

The FBI agents shared a long look.

“The time for blame will come later,” he whispered. And when it came, it would come for hm.

“You’re Goddamn right it will,” one of the FBI agents said.

They led him into the prison, a dank square building of concrete and cinderblock. Sandstorms had chipped the dingy mustard paint to shreds, and dust-covered bare bulbs hummed behind rusted cages. Only every other lightbulb was lit. Down a long hallway, two Yemeni guards waited outside a door marred with black char marks and pocked with large dents.

“My mission is twofold. I need to secure a confession that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack.”

“We already know they’re responsible.”

“The president needs this for the international coalition and to pressure the Taliban.”

“What else?”

“We need to know everything about the al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Their armaments, their personnel. Capabilities, locations, numbers. Everything, for the invasion.”

“We’ve had this guy for a year. We’ve been questioning him. Everything he’s given us, we’ve sent back to Washington. He hasn’t said much, and, no offense, but I doubt you are going to be the one to crack him.” The FBI agent looked him up and down, a cold glare etched on his face.

Kris bristled. Indignity made his spine straighten, pulled his shoulders back. “Things have changed since you captured him.”

“The attacks? Yeah, they made most of the jihadis jubilant. Victorious. Hardened their resolve. You’re not going to get anything.”

“I’m going to try. You can participate or not. Observe or not. But I have my orders.”

“Well, we’ll go in after you’re done. See if we can salvage the night.”

 

 

Abu Tadmir, whose kunya, or family name, meant ‘father of destruction’, strolled into the interrogation room in the company of two Yemeni prison guards. He was clean, his bread trimmed, and he was fat. The guards wore masks over their faces, hiding their identities.

Tadmir was obviously doing just fine in the prison. He was well cared for and had no fear of prison. The guards, instead, seemed to fear him, or feared him learning their identities. Arrogance, power, intimidation. Kris had seen it all before, albeit a world away.

He’d been arrested by the Yemenis in a roundup of al-Qaeda suspects following the USS Cole bombing at the behest of the FBI and the fusion cell working the USS Cole case. He hadn’t given up much in the year he’d been behind bars.

Tadmir pulled out the rickety metal chair on his side of the interrogation table and dropped into it, slouching. Kris stayed seated, silent. He let Tadmir stare, and ignored the way he grinned, laughing, dismissive.

Kris pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered it to Tadmir. Tadmir took one, but said nothing.  “As-salaam-alaikum.”

Wa alaikum as-salaam.”

He flicked his lighter, igniting the end of Tadmir’s cigarette. After, he lit his own, and took a deep inhale. “My name is Kris. I am with the CIA.” He spoke in Arabic, the words rolling off his tongue, clear and strong. Stronger than he felt.

Tadmir arched one eyebrow. “You speak God’s language?” he asked in Arabic.

Nam.” Yes.

“Yet you are an infidel?”

Nam.”

“I will not speak to you in Allah’s language.” He switched to English. It was stilted, halting.

Kris followed him, speaking English. “How are you? You look well.”

Tadmir grinned. He puffed on his cigarette. “Very good. I am very good.”

“I want to check. You are Abu Tadmir, member of al-Qaeda, and former bodyguard of Osama Bin Laden. Emir of the guesthouse, the House of Leaves?”

Tadmir smiled again. “I am Abu Tadmir.” Pride shown in his eyes. “Of course I am he.”

Over the past year, Tadmir had confirmed, through questioning, all information the FBI had been able to gather about him from interrogations of others, captured al-Qaeda documents, and intercepted communications. But, no further. The file stated he admitted information he knew only after being called out in a lie, an arduous process of questioning, challenging, and then his admission. Back and forth, fact-based, closed questions had led to multiple dead ends.

He had to try a different angle. “So, why join al-Qaeda? Why become a jihadi?”

“It is the duty of every Muslim to wage jihad. To fight for Islam. To defend Islam, when invaders and occupiers attack Muslims and take Muslim land. Islam also calls for the end of tyranny, as the Prophet, peace be upon him, all blessings and glory are his, showed in his example. We fight all oppression of Muslims. In Bosnia, in Chechnya, in Afghanistan against the Soviets, against Israel… and against you.”

Tadmir’s eyes gleamed. Kris filed that away as he took a drag of his cigarette. Tadmir enjoyed the spotlight. He enjoyed having an audience. “Where is the oppression?”

Tadmir threw his head lack, laughing. Ash dropped from the end of his cigarette. “Where is the oppression? Oh, you are funny. You are a funny man. Muslim holy lands are under oppression. Occupied by filthy Saudi royals, who are just puppets for your West. Infidels walk on the holy land of Arabia. Israel, and her Western supporters, attack Muslims every day.” Tadmir switched to Arabic, seemingly not even noticing. “Throughout this century, Muslim lands have been invaded time and again. By soldiers. By the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, by Russia in Chechnya. Americans in the holy lands, fighting Saddam. We could have fought him! We did not need any infidels on our land! But that is what you do. You invade, everywhere. Western culture, western ideas, western innovations. We cannot look at the world and see anything but your invasion. This is why Bin Laden issued his fatwa. To liberate the oppressed.”

“America also wants to liberate the oppressed. That’s what we try to do. Did we not help Bin Laden expel the Soviets from Afghanistan?”

Abu Tadmir blew smoke into Kris’s face.

“We want to be a force for good in the world. To help the oppressed. Like it says in the Quran. No man is free if one man is oppressed.”

“You Americans want to be good. But all the world sees is force.” Tadmir sat back, sucking his cigarette between two fingers. “Only Muslims can save other Muslims. Infidels cannot save Muslims. Besides, you are only interfering in Muslim revolutions. Leave us alone. We will make our own way in the world.”

“How can we leave you alone is you declare war on us?”

“The war can end, if you leave the holy land, remove the infidels from Arabia, and submit to Islam.”

“Americans are not all going to convert to Islam.”

“Then the war will continue.”

“How is this war, this jihad, fought? You kill anyone? Everyone?”

“No, no. There are rules to jihad. It must be declared. Bin Laden declared war upon the infidels. He told you how to settle the war. What to do to surrender.”

“Yes, convert to Islam, leave Saudi Arabia.”

Nam.” Tadmir reached for a new cigarette. Kris had left the pack and the lighter in the center of the table.

Kris leaned back, crossing his legs. He took a drag, frowning. He wanted Tadmir to believe he was thinking hard about what he was saying. Let Tadmir believe he had the upper hand. “Okay, so tell me about tactics in jihad. Who can be targeted?”

“It is war. Jihad targets soldiers, warriors. Governments.”

“Like the embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania? American government buildings?”

Nam.”

“But there were women and children who died in that attack. Some of them were Muslims.”

“Bombings and martyrdom operations are the weapons we are given in this great war. You have your missiles. We have our bombs. And, in all wars, there are casualties. Sacrifices must be made. Allah will accept these deaths as holy martyrs for the faith. He will reward them in paradise. Any innocent Muslims will receive the rewards of jihad, as if they were martyring themselves. Their lives are given for the greater cause of jihad.”

“I’m not sure they’d see it that way.”

“They will be delighted in paradise. What is the problem?”

“How many innocent lives are too many? Or can everyone go to paradise?”

“Murder is not acceptable.” Tadmir frowned, as if Kris had insulted him. “I am not a murderer. Casualties happen in war. But murder, taking innocent lives? That is forbidden.”

Kris blinked. He flicked ash on the table. “Tell me about your friends. Your fellow al-Qaeda fighters. I want to know them. Understand them, like you’re explaining yourself to me.”

Tadmir smiled wide. “You see, I will show you the truth. You will believe.”

Kris smiled back. He pulled a binder out of his bag and opened it up. Pages of pictures, headshots taken from passports and drivers licenses and ID cards around the world, appeared. “Your friends in al-Qaeda. These are their pictures.”

Tadmir looked over the first page. He frowned and shook his head. “No, I do not know these people.”

“I think you do.”

“Okay, maybe him.” Tadmir pointed to one of the senior commanders, a man he’d already admitted to knowing in the FBI’s files. “I recognize his face. But I do not know his name.”

“Are you certain?”

Tadmir looked up, over the pictures. His eyes glittered. “Of course I am certain.”

“Four months ago, you told my friend that he was Abu Hafs, Bin Laden’s trusted military advisor. Now you want to lie to my face? How can I trust you?” Kris laid it on thick, shaking his head and leaning back. Image was important, deeply important, to Arabian cultures and to Muslims. Honor and one’s word were often all an individual had. Being called out as a liar was a stinging insult that left a deep cut of shame.

He’d use that. He’d use that all day long.

“Okay, I am sorry.” Tadmir ducked his head, his cheeks flushing. “You are right. I do know that man.”

“You are only admitting to things you think I already know. Abu Tadmir, I know everything. You have no idea who of your friends I have spoken to. Do you think I came to talk to you, all the way from America, because I know nothing? I want to trust you, but you make it difficult. How can I respect you when you lie to my face?”

“Okay, okay. Let me see the book again.” Tadmir pulled the book close, studying picture after picture, shaking his head.

Kris waited, forcing himself to breathe slowly as Tadmir lit another cigarette. Ash filled his nose, his mouth. Echoes of shrieks hung in the silence, clashing like cymbals in Kris’s brain.

Tadmir was about to turn the page, move on to the next, when Kris slapped his own palm down on the tabletop. “You lie to me again!”

“What?”

“You claim you do not know this man!” Kris pointed to one of the pictures, a small passport photo of a half-smiling Arab near the bottom third of the sheet. The man had glasses and a goatee and looked like a computer programmer. “You truly expect me to believe you do not know Abu Mahraj? The man you spent Ramadan with in 1999? You broke your fast with him every day, sharing your dates and yogurt with him. And yet you lie to me that you know him?”

Tadmir flushed. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I do know him.”

“He is your friend?”

Nam.”

“You are both in al-Qaeda together?”

Kris stared into Tadmir’s eyes. Abu Mahraj, whose real name was Marwan al-Shehhi, was the lead hijacker on United Airlines Flight 175.

The names of the hijackers hadn’t been released yet. Tadmir had no idea.

“This man is also your friend.” Kris pointed to another photo. An unsmiling, square-jawed Egyptian, serious, and with cold, dark eyes.

“Awag al-Sayyid.” Tadmir bobbed his head. “He was very serious. He was with Abu Mahraj, and they were friends. But I did not like that he never smiled.”

The serious man with the cold eyes, the picture Kris touched, was Mohammed Atta, hijacker of American Airlines flight 11, which slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at eight forty-six AM, six days before. He wanted to recoil, shake his hand until the evil of Atta left him, shake him off like he could shake off a bad dream.

“When did you last speak with your friends?”

“After Ramadan, they were away training for some time. Training with the Sheik.”

“Training with Bin Laden?”

Nam.” Tadmir seemed proud, and he smiled as he blew smoke toward Kris. “I was happy for Abu Mahraj. He seemed happy. We did not talk about it, though. He left Afghanistan, and I came to Yemen on my own mission for the Sheik. But I was arrested, and I have not spoken to Abu Mahraj since then.”

A year. He hadn’t spoken to al-Shehhi for a year. But the training had happened before that, in 1999. Kris’s heart pounded. His breath sped up. All he could smell, all he could taste was ash and flame.

“Have you heard about what happened in New York City and Washington? Do you know that hundreds, maybe thousands, of Muslims died in those attacks?” The death toll was still rising. Maybe it wouldn’t ever be known. Kris swallowed back vomit. It tasted like ash. He stubbed out his cigarette. The towers tumbled like blocks flashing every time he blinked.

Tadmir took a long drag of his cigarette. He nodded. “You have only yourselves to blame for Muslim hatred. Your foreign policy, your occupation of Muslim lands, your support of Israel.”

“So you support the attacks?”

Another long drag. “No.” Tadmir shook his head. “Those were not allowed under jihad. No shura council would authorize those attacks. Those are a crime. Murder. Anyone who knows jihad knows they were not allowable. Civillians are not to be targeted.” He frowned. “Clearly, this shows those attacks were the work of Israel and the Americans.”

Kris stopped breathing. “How so?”

“To justify the invasion of more Muslim land. Where will you invade next? If you try to take Afghanistan, the mujahedeen will rise, and they will slaughter you like they slaughtered the Soviets!”

“I know who committed he attacks.” His voice was calm, soft. Almost a whisper.

“Then why are you here? Go chase them! Why bother me?” Tadmir scoffed

“I am chasing who committed the attacks.”

“You are not! You are bothering me!” Tadmir waved his hand, as if trying to shoo Kris away.

You committed the attacks.”

“What?”

“Al-Qaeda is responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of lives.” He spoke barely above a whisper.

“No—”

“Al-Qaeda hijacked these planes.

“No—”

“Al-Qaeda murdered all those people.”

“No!” Tadmir slammed both hands down on the table. Cigarette ash went flying. “What kind of Muslim would do such a thing? The Sheik would not! He is not like you Americans!”

“I know that al-Qaeda committed these attacks. I know it.”

Tadmir snarled, “How? What proof do you have?”

“I was told al-Qaeda did it.”

“By who?”

You.”

Silence.

Kris pulled a manila folder from his bag and laid out nineteen photos. He placed Marwan al-Shehhi and Mohammad Atta’s photos right in front of Tadmir.

Tadmir’s eyes were wide, so round and huge he could see whites all around his dark irises. His gaze flicked from the photos to Kris and back, lingering on al-Shehhi.

“These are the hijackers that murdered thousands.” He tapped al-Shehhi’s photo. “Your friend flew United Airlines 175 into the South Tower.”

Tadmir’s jaw dropped. All the oxygen seemed to disappear, sucked out of the tiny, drab interrogation room. Shock poured from Tadmir, and he stared down at al-Shehhi’s photo as he shook his head, over and over, his mouth hanging open. “How… how is this possible?”

“You tell me. You’re al-Qaeda.”

“Not like this…” Abu Tadmir shook his head. “Allah forgive me, not like this. This is not what I believe in. The Sheik… he’s gone crazy.”

“These men, they are all al-Qaeda?”

“Yes, all of them. I recognize them all. They were at my guesthouse near Tarnak Farms…” He shook his head again, tears welling in his eyes. One hand reached for al-Shehhi’s photo, his shaking fingers touching the image, as if he could touch al-Shehhi’s face so gently. “Why?” he whispered.

Kris stayed silent. His heart raced, pounding a bassline drumbeat in his mind, hard enough to crack his skull. Blood burned in his veins. Ash filled his nose, his eyes, his lungs, searing everything until he could taste the flames, the jet fuel dripping through the towers’ superstructure, could feel the singe on his own soul. Across from him, Abu Tadmir wept for the friend he’d lost, and Kris tasted the bitterness of failure and shame.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Tadmir wiped his eyes, blinking. “I am sorry,” he said slowly. “This is not right. It is not what I believe. So I will help you. What do you need from me?”

“Everything.”

 

 

The FBI agents, who’d been watching the interrogation on closed circuit TVs, joined him. Together they asked Tadmir for details of the hijackers, their time at the al-Qaeda training camps, their connections to Bin laden. Tadmir gave information about al-Qaeda leadership, and the shura council. Day to day operations, and the organizational structure. Financing strategies. Everything the FBI and CIA knew about al-Qaeda was dated to when Bin Laden had been working in Sudan.

Tadmir smoked the entire pack of cigarettes, and his eyes kept straying to al-Shehhi’s photo. He shook his head, every time, and then launched into describing al-Qaeda’s defenses, and marked on the map where he knew the Taliban had entrenched their own defensive positions.

After twelve hours of listening to Tadmir spill his soul, Kris ducked out. His hands were shaking, his legs, his whole body. He held himself up, one hand on the wall, as he walked toward a dingy window. He had to call Washington.

Carter Black picked up on the third ring. The satellite connection was scratchy, as if Black were more than just a world away. “Kris, great job. Really great stuff. Tabat and I are on the way to the White House to brief the president. Come home. Fly back to DC right away. We need you for what’s coming next.

 


Abu Tadmir is based on an actual al-Qaeda operative in Yemen who provided the official confirmation that al-Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks. This interrogation is based on actual events.

 

Haunted – Sergey reflects on Sasha, after rescuing Jack from the river (Enemy Within)

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, we’re exploring a scene in Enemy Within, this time from Sergey’s POV. If you have not read Enemy Within, this Byte is NOT for you! Come back and read it after you’re finished the series! You will enjoy the series so much more for having experienced it without spoilers! 🙂

For those of you who have read Enemy Within, this prompt comes from Alexi, who wanted to see the scene where Jack and Sergey wake up in Siberia together, after Jack falls into the river, and Sergey has his realization.

Happy Reading!


 

Jack is so peaceful when he sleeps.

 

Sergey’s gaze traced the lines of Jack’s face, the planes of his cheeks. The curve of his lips, relaxed and almost smiling. Asleep, the tension hidden in Jack’s expression had melted away, and he looked a decade younger, a man nearing the prime of his life. There was only a hint of crow’s feet at his eyes, echoes that looked that shadows on Jack’s smooth skin.

 

Color was coming back to Jack’s face, his body. He’d lost that deathly-pale sheen, the gray tinge to his skin, shortly after he started breathing again. Sergey had held him in his arms, pressed their naked bodies together. Rubbed his hands and his arms and even his legs over every part of Jack, trying to pour his own body’s meager warmth into his friend.

 

Slowly, Jack was coming back to life. Unfreezing, after the icy river. His heart was strong. And he had everything to live for.

 

But Sergey’s world, his heart and soul, was coming apart.

 

He traced Jack’s lips with his gaze again, his breath stuttering. They were centimeters apart, their bodies firmly pressed together. It would take nothing, nothing at all, to reach out and close his lips over Jack’s. Something gentle, something sweet, instead of the rough way he’d breathed into Jack hours ago.

 

If it weren’t for Ethan

 

Govno, what was he thinking? Jack was his friend. His plucky, crazy American friend. He couldn’t kiss Jack! He wasn’t—

 

Sergey squeezed shut his eyes.

 

Jack transformed into Sasha, safe in the bleak darkness of his mind. Sasha’s body, hard and firm, smooth and sleek, in his arms. He was muscled where Jack was more trim, but they were both relatively hairless. It was easy to pretend, suddenly, that Sasha had slid into his arms in the bunker, had nuzzled his way into his sleeping bag. Was breathing softly against his neck.

 

He pulled Jack closer, keeping his eyes shut as he fought back the sob that strangled his chest.

 

Sasha, damn it. Why? Why had he flown off like that? If they had just a few more hours, they could have come up with another way. He didn’t have to sacrifice his life—

 

Why had Sasha left him?

 

Why had Sasha kissed him?

 

Blocks tumbled in his mind, a baby toppling a wall of wooden toys. Memories he’d hidden, buried, appeared like vapor, fog that threaded through his entire life. Noticing a man. Noticing his body, his shape. Wondering—

 

No. Those were normal thoughts. It was normal to recognize other people, their beauty. Man or woman.

 

Wasn’t it?

 

How many people had he been close to in his whole life? Out of two marriages and his friendship with Ilya and Sasha, where did his heart prefer to be? What memories did he cherish? What inside jokes did he remember? If he could turn back time, where would he go?

 

He knew exactly where. He’d go back to the flight line, and the cold wind of Volga whipping beneath his jacket. The smell of burned metal and scorched asphalt. Old diesel fuel. Jet engines, and oil. And Sasha.

 

He’d go back to the moment Sasha reached for him. He’d reach back, holding on to Sasha as he kissed him. He wouldn’t let Sasha pull back. He’d pull him closer instead, wrap his arms around him, finally.

 

He wouldn’t let Sasha get into the jet.

 

He wouldn’t lose Sasha, just moments after he’d found himself.

 

Was that it? Was this the truth of his life? Had he deluded himself for years, for fifty-two years, and now, after losing Sasha, he was finally able to face the truth? That the only times he ever deeply connected with someone… that someone was a man?

 

That his wandering eye had less to do with aesthetics, with admiring suits and sweaters, and more to do with the person beneath the layers?

 

The sob in his chest swelled, cutting off his breath. He gasped, gripping Jack hard, tangling his fingers in Jack’s hair and squeezing his shoulders as he practically climbed his body.

 

How many times had he looked at Sasha? Teased him about his superhero good looks, the way he could pass for ‘Captain Russia’, a play on Captain America. How many times had he told him he was beautiful, as a joke or in playful banter?

 

How was he to know that his idle words were actually the secret of his soul?

 

It had been easy, so, so easy, to pretend his glances meant nothing. To ignore his thoughts as mindless fascination. To turn his gaze to women, and relax into the ease of normalcy.

 

But what woman had ever touched his soul the way Sasha had?

 

Thoughts of Sasha made his soul stir, his heart bleed tears down his ribs. Anguish made his spine curl, and he wrapped himself around Jack. Tears built in his eyelashes, burning droplets hovering on his frigid skin. Too late, he was too late. Sasha was gone.

 

What could they have had, though?

 

Thoughts tumbled like diamonds, like water slipping through his hands. Dreams like falling stars, or a jet fighter exploding in midair, and debris raining to the ground.

 

They could have had a true first kiss.

 

They could have had a moment over dinner, when their eyes locked. Maybe a moment when their hands, their fingers, laced together. He’d have spoken with his eyes, tried to tell Sasha everything he felt with the heat of his gaze.

 

Could he have danced with Sasha? Sasha was a block of stone, an ice giant, most days. Could he ever have folded into Sergey’s arms and swayed, a small smile on his face? Could they have twirled around a dance floor, chests brushing, hips aligned?

 

Perhaps, they could have had a moment like this. Naked body to naked body, wrapped so closely around each other. Sasha would be intense with him, like he was intense with everything in his life. They would kiss, really kiss, not like their fumble at the flight line. Sasha’s hands would be everywhere, govno, everywhere, in his hair, sliding down his side, cupping his thigh as their bodies aligned—

 

Sergey’s thoughts hardened, became real. His body, dreaming of Sasha and pressed against Jack, responded to his galloping desire. His cock, hard, pushed against Jack’s hip.

 

Fuck. His eyes snapped open, and he stared, panicked, into Jack’s sleeping face.

 

I wish you were Sasha.

 

The thought hit him like a train, like Sasha’s jet ripping apart over Siberia. I wish you were Sasha. Jack, I would give anything for you to be Sasha, right now. Jack was vibrant, gregarious, American as apple pie and the crack of the stars and stripes in the wind. Beautiful, in ways Sergey only cautiously admitted to himself. A part of him had been drawn to Jack from the first moment they met. A worthy adversary, or a friend and partner he could cherish. He hadn’t known which at the time.

 

He’d wanted a closer relationship with Jack. He’d wanted to get closer to the president and the man. He’d never asked himself why.

 

Until Sasha had stolen his soul.

 

“If you were Sasha,” he whispered, “I would kiss you. I would make love to you. Fuck, I would.” His sob hit him sideways, surprising him. Curling forward again, his lips landed on Jack’s forehead. “Sasha…” tears fell, streaking across his cheeks as he kissed Jack’s forehead.

 

Would there be another man who captured his heart so completely, like Sasha had? Perhaps Jack could have, if it weren’t for his heart already being wholly owned by Ethan. But had he missed his one last chance at true love in this life? Had his cowardice at facing himself condemned him to losing what he wanted most?

 

Sergey kissed Jack’s forehead again, inhaling the scent of Jack’s hair. He could pretend it was Sasha, for a moment. If he kept his eyes closed, this could be his stolen time. He could fantasize, for just this once, and imagine what it would have been like. He was a degenerate, using his half-frozen friend in this way, but…

 

If only he had been braver, he might have actually known what having Sasha in his arms was like.

 

Oh, this was torture. Jack shifted, moved. His body was responding to Sergey’s, his own cock hardening. Jack’s arms slipped around his waist, and his head pillowed on Sergey’s shoulder.

 

If he kept his eyes closed, it was still Sasha. Sasha’s touch. Sasha’s hardness, matching his own. Sasha desiring him, as laughable as that thought was. If only! He just had to roll his hips, align his body, and he and Sasha would finally be making love—

 

Jack stirred. Shifted. Sighed. His lips, still chilled, pressed against Sergey’s collarbone.

 

Fuck.

 

Jack’s hips rolled, his hard cock rubbing up Sergey’s thigh, toward his own cock, achingly hard and—

 

Sasha.

 

“Jack.”

 

Jack froze. He didn’t breathe.

 

“Sergey, I’m sorry. I didn’t know where I was.” Jack tried to pull away, looking down, away, keeping his eyes closed.

 

No, he couldn’t let go. Not yet. Sasha and Jack were merging, mixing in his mind. His soul was a firework, blasting into shards that burned the sky, pieces of Sasha’s jet that had come apart around him, debris that rained down, the broken remnants of a life and a love that could have been. He needed something; comfort, affection, care, he didn’t know what. A balm to the heartache, to the loneliness. Something that could pretend to put a bandage over the crevasse in his heart, the void that had opened when he heard Sasha’s voice say, “Sergey, I—“, and then—

 

Silence.

 

Jack kept pulling away, out of his arms. He’d die if Jack let go now, pulled away while his soul was bleeding in every direction. He’d die, he knew it.

 

“Jack.”

 

Jack looked him dead in the eye. Faced him, and his naked body, their naked bodies, and the secret that pressed hot and hard between them. That was Jack, that was his friend. Facing head on what life gave him, no matter what. Sergey was unlike him in every way. Did it really take Sasha dying for him to face that he loved the man?

 

“Sergey?” A single word, a question.

 

A heartbeat, and he was back in Moscow, laughing with Ilya, watching and waiting for Sasha’s gentle smile to be teased out. He was ribbing Sasha, poking fun at his stories about flying, about training, about the mothballed way the Russian Army Air Force operated on shoestrings and duct tape. Sasha had chuckled, smiled at him. “Sergey—” he said.

 

A heartbeat, and he was in the forest outside Volga, clinging to the sat phone, desperately trying to hang on to his last connection to Sasha. Static, a high-pitched warble, Sasha’s gruff voice shouting information over a roar that sounded like an oncoming train. That was Sasha, flying at nearly the speed of sound, running away from missiles, running into certain death, all for the mission, for a shot at intelligence. Damn Madigan, he’d taken everything from Jack, and now he was taking everything from Sergey, too! Sasha’s voice choked off, and the roar came back. Was it over? Was that the—

 

“Sergey, I—” Sasha said.

 

He heard the missile’s impact. He heard Sasha’s jet come apart, metal tearing, sheering, screaming. He heard the fireball erupt. He heard everything, except what Sasha was going to say.

 

And now, he’d never hear Sasha say his name again.

 

Sergey pitched forward, crashing into Jack. There was a black hole in his chest, a void, aching with the memories of what he’d lost. Not lost. Never had to begin with. He’d never been able to admit what he wanted. Not to Sasha, and not to himself. Not ever. Tears raced down his cheeks, trails of fire that scalded his soul. He pressed his forehead to Jack’s, trying to escape himself. “I am not brave enough,” he whispered. “I am not brave enough.”

 

Jack was kind, compassionate, when he shouldn’t have been. Sergey had been cherishing him as if he were Sasha, had grown hard imagining Jack was another man. Jack had awoken to Sergey’s arousal. He should be furious. Instead, he cradled Sergey’s cheeks and turned his face up. Sergey closed his eyes. He couldn’t face Jack. “What are you talking about?” Jack whispered gently.

 

“I am not a brave enough man. I am not like you. Or—” A sob choked him, cutting out his voice. “Or Sasha.”

 

“Sergey… Are you saying you’re—”

 

“I do not know what I am!” Sergey ripped out of Jack’s careful hold, turning his face away. Shame licked up his bones, curled through his body like fire eating him alive. “When you were sleeping, I imagined you were Sasha.”

 

Sergey inhaled, waiting for the blow.

 

Jack sighed slowly as he cupped Sergey’s cheek. “Is this the first time you’ve thought about another man this way?”

 

Dare he confess? Dare he bare his soul? Dare he admit to the secret he’d kept from even himself? What was there to gain by keeping this all hidden anymore? If only he’d been more honest with himself, and with Sasha! Would it all have ended this badly?

 

Sergey dug his forehead into Jack’s, shaky inhales bouncing off Jack’s cheeks. “No.”

 

“No?”

 

Jack was never shocked. Never stunned. Except for now.

 

“I noticed men. Noticed how they looked. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like. Two men together. But they were just thoughts! I thought everyone thought the way I did. Wondered, sometimes. But you said you never thought about it before you were with Ethan.”

 

“No. I never did.”

 

Memories of the Soviet Union, growing up in a world where being different, being not like everyone else, was a death sentence. His relief, palpable, as he grew that he found women attractive. That he was, and could be, normal. He didn’t have to look over his shoulder, every day and every night, live with the corrosion of a secret. He fumbled something to Jack, bitten off words and whispers.

 

“So you hid what you felt?”

 

“I never knew what I felt! It was never a possibility!” Being with a man, loving a man. Inconceivable. Utterly inconceivable, in the Soviet Union or in her successor, the Russian Federation. But wasn’t he the man who was trying to change Russia? Wasn’t he the president who championed equality, and freedom for all? Somewhere deep, deep inside his mangled heart, had there been a faint hope? When he’d met Sasha, had there been that flash, that spark, that crazy chemical signal that goes off between two people destined to be lovers? Had he felt the pull toward Sasha? Had everything started to align then, his heart and his head and his soul coming into focus on one man?

 

Sergey didn’t speak for a long moment. He shifted, pressing their foreheads together again. Swallowed. “If I could go back to any point in my life and have just ten seconds… I would have kissed him back. Held on, and never let go. Not have let him go on that mission. Damn the information. It wasn’t worth his life!” Tears slipped from the corners of his eyes, down his cheeks again, silently. “Or I would go further back. Tell myself to not be a fool. We could have had time together—” His voice cut off as his lips clamped shut, a shaky breath escaping from his nose.

 

I would take it all back, Sasha, every moment, every dream, every particle. Every compromise. To be with you, even for just one more moment. To kiss you. To let you know… I felt it too.

 

“Is it… just Sasha?”

 

“No, Jack.” Sergey finally looked back into Jack’s gaze. Sasha had captured his heart, his soul. But it was never just Sasha. He’d been teetering on the edge of his psyche for his whole life. “I have always thought you were a beautiful man. If things had been different, I may have fallen in love with you. You… captivate me. You always have.”

 

Maybe Jack would have pushed him over this edge. Maybe he would have flirted, under the guise of diplomacy. Maybe Jack would have flirted back.

 

But it wouldn’t have been the same.

 

He couldn’t breathe suddenly, seared by Jack’s warmth, no longer comforting. He was scalding, the heat of him so at odds with the man he loved. Sasha, chiseled from ice, a snegurochka snow maiden from olden times. He shifted, almost afraid to move. But he wasn’t hard anymore. Maybe he never would be again.  

 

Sergey pulled away, sitting up and leaning against the wall next to the bunk. He covered himself with blankets, with the remains of the bed nest he’d created. Dried blood flaked off his chest and down his arm. Sasha would have thrown a fit if he’d seen the wound, would have scowled and insisted on cleaning it personally. He would have let him, too. When had he happily given over his soul to Sasha? If he had to point to a moment, could he? Could he say, ah, this, this was when I fell in love with him?

 

“We are straight out of classic Russian literature, Sasha and me. The man who loved the hero went away, and the hero learned, too late, that he did love him in return.” He shook his head. “So now I know. Now I must live with this.” He sighed, sniffed, and scrubbed his hands over his face. “Live with knowing how much of a coward I am.”

 

“Sergey—”

 

“No, no. Do not try and make me feel better. I do not want to. I need this. This feeling, my heart in a vise. Pulverized.” He made a fist, squeezing slowly.

 

Somewhere, he once heard that a person’s soul traveled for forty days after their death, revisiting their loved ones, their old life, before saying the final goodbye. Was it true? Was Sasha there? Was he just a breath away? Would Sasha even want to visit him, after Sergey had failed him so spectacularly in life? If the roles were reversed, he would have returned to Sasha’s side. Spent every hour next to him, greedy for every moment of those forty days, drinking in all that his soul could take.

 

If there was a chance, even the slightest chance, that Sasha could hear him, could sense him…

 

Sasha… I love you.  

 


 

Timestamp: Enemy Within, Chapter 17. Sergey & Jack in Siberia, on the run, after Jack falls into the icy river while being pursued by Milos.