Jack’s First Thanksgiving – Missing Scene from Interlude

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! This week, we’re going back to Jack’s first White House Thanksgiving… except, it wasn’t. In Interlude, Jack spends Thanksgiving at the G20, and then visits his family for one night. What happened that night? What did they talk about? What was on Jack’s mind, after the G20, before Ethan and his first Christmas? Happy Reading!


 

“We land in DC in ten hours, Mr. President.”

 

Jack tried to smile at Scott. He was exhausted, though, down to his bones. His skeleton was tired of holding him up.

 

Holding him up against the world.

 

“Thank you, Agent Collard.” For a moment, he wanted to invite Scott in, ask him to sit down, put his feet up. Maybe they could banter back and forth, catch a half of the Thanksgiving football game.

 

But, he’d have to keep the office door open, for propriety’s sake, and that was just mortifying for a 45-year-old man. A 45-year-old President of the United States, no less. And, what would the rumors be if he tried to socialize with Scott a bit? He could see the headlines now: President Moves On; Out of Sight, Out of Mind. Reichenbach Ditched for New Secret Service Agent.

 

Scott disappeared, vanishing as fast as physics would allow. All the Secret Service agents had perfected that move since his and Ethan’s outing. Like they were ordered to keep their distance or something.

 

Was it any wonder?

 

Jack slumped against his office chair on Air Force One. Outside, silver clouds drifted past a dark sky, spilled ink that had covered the world. Maybe it was all the ink spent covering his sex life, his terrible choices, his tanking presidency.

 

Enough. The G20 was behind him. As were the stares, the glares, the jeers. The refused handshakes. He’d known it would be difficult. But he hadn’t expected it to be quite that searingly intense, the hatred so pointed, so poignant.

 

Reading about discrimination in headlines, being aware of it from a distant, political perspective, was so much different than feeling the visceral hatred directed right at his soul.

 

Ten hours. He could try and grab some rest, at least.

 

* * *

 

Except, he couldn’t.

 

Nightmares plagued him, always of Ethan. Ethan attacked by Madigan, by al-Karim, trapped in a rat-infested hole in Ethiopia. Swaying on his knees beneath a single bulb, machete to his neck. Scrabbling in the dust, trying to get to Jack before the explosion that blasted out the world. Storming the Oval Office, coming to save Jack, but Gottschalk was too fast, and Ethan caught a bullet between his eyes. He fell to the carpet, lifeless eyes staring at Jack—

 

It was always worse the longer he went without seeing Ethan. How many days had it been? They’d lost so much time, too many weekends stolen thanks to politics and the world. If there were any other permutation of their lives, any other way their paths could have crossed, would they have still ended up here? What if he’d never run for president? What if he just happened to bump into Ethan in DC one day, or if he were a Senator visiting the White House? Would any of this have ever happened?

 

Sweat-soaked, Jack sat up in bed, scrubbing his hands over his face. He’d slept almost three hours. That wasn’t half bad, considering some nights he was waking up every hour.

 

He grabbed his reading glasses and his tablet and started scanning emails.

 

His eyes drifted to the clock, checking the time every few minutes. In another two hours, he could call Ethan in Des Moines. Hear his voice. See his face, even. See that smile, the one that filled his heart.

 

One hour, forty-five minutes.

 

* * *

 

In DC, they refueled and offloaded most of the passengers, and then were wheels-up again within the hour. Jack called his parents from the runway. They had just put the turkey in the oven, they said, and it would be coming out right when his limo pulled into the drive.

 

He’d hosted a small Thanksgiving dinner for his staff and the Secret Service during the G20, ordering a feast at the hotel where they were all staying. It had been fun, and perhaps the first truly social, relaxed engagement he’d had since before Ethan had ‘died’. For the first time in months, he’d felt like he had friends again.

 

But, the night ended, of course, and like Cinderella at midnight, he was back to being the scandalous gay president, the president who’d fucked a Secret Service agent. The president to be avoided.

 

The G20 ended, too, as did Thanksgiving back in the states. He’d missed the first Thanksgiving of his and Ethan’s relationship. The best he could do was videocall Ethan from the table with the rest of the Secret Service detail. At least Ethan could say hi to his friends.

 

He wasn’t going to miss Christmas. No matter what the invasion plans were, or what President Puchkov had in store for him. There was an ominous red folder with a proposal from President Sergey Puchkov in it, and he didn’t quite know what to make of that yet. No, no matter what, he was spending Christmas with Ethan in the White House.

 

Now he just had to convince his parents.

 

They had all the good intentions in the world, and loved him as deeply as any parents could love their children. He hadn’t realized how unconditionally they loved him until after Leslie died. His dad, once so distant and unemotional, had folded him up, become the bones for his weary soul, and carried him through the funeral, the grief, the year and more that he’d lost to memories and shattered dreams. Walks they’d shared in silence, drinking coffee on his parents’ porch, his dad as fixed a presence at his side as the stars in the sky. When he’d break, fracture on the fault lines of his cracked heart, his dad would hold him through the tears. Pull him sideways, and tuck Jack’s face into his neck. His flannel shirts always smelled of fresh cotton and tomato sauce, the laundry detergent and his mom’s cooking.

 

His mom had cleaned the house from top to bottom every day for a year, always polishing and dusting and vacuuming, ironing and sweeping and mopping. It was her process, she said. Grief smelled like lemon polish and steam from the iron, dish soap and floor wax. When he started seeing dust bunnies in the corner of their house again, and a dirty pan in the sink overnight, Jack had started smiling again, too.

 

They’d encouraged him to run for the state legislature. Had supported his platform, his single-issue-driven ideology of a thirty-one-year-old man. His first run had been a memorial for Leslie, a way to push for better care for veterans and for those still serving. They’d cheered him every bit of the way, and he’d watched that first election victory in their living room, all those years ago.

 

They’d been the first he’d told about considering a presidential run. Cautiously optimistic, as all good parents would be, they warned him about how hard a run would be, how taxing, how ugly it could get. But, if anyone could do it, they said, he could.

 

The night he won, he took three phone calls. One from his opponent, conceding the race. One from the president, congratulating him. And the last from his parents.

 

“We’ll be there for you,” Mary had said. “We won’t let you be alone in that big ole’ White House. Every holiday, I’ll come and make all your favorites.”

 

“Mom, the White House has a chef. When you come visit, you can relax. You don’t have to cook.”

 

She’d tsked at him. “It’s not a holiday without the traditions. It will be a new location, but we’ll have the same family favorites.”

 

How would Mary take not being there for his first Christmas in the White House?

 

He hoped to lessen the blow by coming for Thanksgiving, albeit late Thanksgiving.

 

Arriving anywhere at the President of the United States was an exercise in fanfare and noisy pomp and circumstance. Scott had his agents hyper alert at all times now, the protection around him doubled and sometimes tripled. Even pulling into the gravel drive of his parent’s ranch house, Scott and his team were on the move, securing the driveway and lining the gravel path with agents in black suits and sunglasses. Scott opened his door, after surveying the property with an eagle eye and staring at his parents, waiting on the porch, for a long moment.

 

“Have a good time, Mr. President.”

 

“Thank you, Agent Collard.”

 

“We’re stationing agents on the property and will rotate a protective detail through the night.”

 

“Thanks. I’m sure I’ll be fine, though. This is my home.”

 

Scott smiled, his lips thin. “So is the White House, sir, but we don’t relax there either.”

 

Jack knew when to keep his mouth shut. Scott escorted him to the porch and then disappeared, vanishing back to the limo as his mom and dad hustled down the steps to wrap him in a hug.

 

“Jack!” His mom, exuberant as always around the holidays, had a sweatshirt with a colorful turkey on it, a firestorm of tail feathers spread across the front. She wrapped him up, squeezing tight, and then stepped back, giving him a critical eye. “You’ve lost weight. And your hair is turning gray.” She reached for his temples, as if she could brush away the gray strands.

 

Jack tried to duck. “Comes with the job.” More gray seemed to appear every day.

 

His dad, in a stately forest button-down and dark jeans, pulled him in for a quick hug and a back slap. “Hanging in there, son?”

 

“I’m okay.”

 

Twin frowns, almost mirrors of each other, darkened his parents’ faces.

 

“I’m tired.” He tried to smile. It felt weak. “It was a long trip.”

 

Mary and Andrew shared a long look. Damn it, he’d never been able to keep anything from them, not when he was a child and not when he was an adult.

 

“Let’s eat. I’ve been craving your cooking, Mom.”

 

Mary smiled and waved him inside, letting go, for the moment, what he hadn’t said. It would come back, he knew. It was only a matter of time.

 

* * *

 

Despite there just being the three of them, Mary had cooked as if there were sixteen. Sweet potatoes and homemade potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, broccoli cheese casserole, cranberry sauce, biscuits and homemade pies. He got full just looking at the spread.

 

“I wanted to make enough for the Secret Service, too.” Mary pointed to the kitchen counter, where she had plates already made and wrapped, complete with napkins and plastic silverware. “It’s only right to feed them when they’re protecting you.”

 

Hadn’t he said almost the same thing at the G20 when Welby had shied away from eating Thanksgiving dinner with him? The apple did not fall far from the tree. “Thanks, Mom. It will mean a lot to the guys. And it means a lot to me, too.”

 

Another long look between his parents, over the basket of rolls. “Well, we know you care about the Secret Service, and the agents.”

 

Jack’s stomach turned, sweet potatoes and broccoli cheese duking it out. “Yeah.” He kept his eyes down, scrapped his potatoes back and forth.

 

“Jack?” Andrew set down his silverware and stared at him. The heavy weight of his gaze hit Jack where it always did, right on his shoulders. Sure, he was the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, but, for the moment, he was twelve years old, under interrogation by his dad. Or, thirty, and his dad was reaching out again, in his quiet, still way. He wanted to fold, buckle under the weight.

 

“Everything okay?” Mary’s voice was soft, almost fragile. “Are you still happy with… your choices?” She frowned, as if she knew she’d flubbed what she tried to say.

 

He knew the feeling.

 

“I… really miss him.” Jack sighed, slumping forward, burying his head in his hands. His elbows landed on the tabletop, and any other time, his mom would have slapped his side for that. “The G20 was hard. I wasn’t expecting all of the hate. I mean, I knew there’d be some. I hear about it, and I see the headlines. But I’m protected in the White House. I don’t have to feel it every day. Being at the G20… made it a lot more real.”

 

Andrew reached for him, wrapping one wrinkled hand around his elbow.

 

“I really, really wanted him to be there with me. It would have made everything easier.”

 

“Are you having second thoughts?” Mary’s voice was still soft, almost a whisper.

 

“No.” Jack shook his head, folding his arms on the table. His dad grabbed his hand, squeezed tight. “I just…” He pressed his lips together. Blinked fast, and tried to push back the burn in his eyes. “I wish I had more time with him. I wish we could be together, like a real couple. I hate the separation. I hate being apart from him. I hate the media attacking him, all the time.” He chewed his lip. “Everything just seems better when he’s around.”

 

Another long look passed between his mom and dad. “Sounds like you love him a great deal.”

 

“I do,” Jack whispered. “I really do.” His vision blurred, went watery. He sniffed, sat back, and tried to force the tears away. “I had to fall in love when I was the president, huh? Couldn’t have happened at a more convenient time?” He tried to chuckle.

 

“You always did things your own way, Jack.” Andrew smiled, his gaze warm. “I’m glad you are in love again. That you’ve found someone that makes you happy.” He frowned. “You are happy, right? Other than this?”

 

“Yeah.” Memories cascaded through him, bits of days and nights and weekends and trips and moments stolen in the West Wing and the Residence. All his happiest memories had Ethan in them. All his best moments had Ethan there, a part of his life and his soul. “I am pretty much only happy when we’re together these days.”

 

“Is there anything you guys can do?”

 

“I can resign.”

 

“Jack, be serious.” Mary frowned at him.

 

“I am being serious. The media attacks, they’re only getting worse. Especially after the G20. The president that other nations won’t recognize? What kind of diplomatic power do I have? Congress keeps talking about investigations. Into me, into the Secret Service, into Ethan. They’re trying to put pressure on me, trying to get me to buckle.”

 

“Don’t let them. Don’t buckle.”

 

Jack sighed, deflating, “Dad, it’s not that simple. Every single thing I do is a battle now. Everything I want, every political agenda I have, has been tarnished. Building alliances and trying to pass legislation is almost insurmountable. The challenges I face… Would it be better for the country if I just resign? Let someone who can govern take up the post?” He generally despised his VP, but Green had a way of getting through to Congress. He was from the wing of the Republican party, though, and he and Jack could best be described as contemptuous officemates, back in DC.

 

“Think of the victory, though, when you succeed. When you do pass your legislation. When you do make the world safer, more united. When you aren’t just the president, but an excellent president.”

 

Jack looked down, hanging his head. His foot tapped against the floor, fast flicks that made his sole squeak.

 

“You have never been a quitter, Jack.” Andrew squeezed his hand again. “Challenges have always made you rise up stronger. Fight back. You don’t sit on your heels, and you don’t give up.”

 

“It would be so nice to just run away with him.” His voice was paper thin, a strained whisper.

 

“You would regret it forever.”

 

Slowly, Jack nodded.

 

“Is there any way you can see him more? Can’t you bring him back to DC?” Mary started collecting dishes and silverware, scraping Jack’s half eaten food off his plate.

 

“I can’t use my political power to influence his position in the Secret Service. I can’t. That’s exactly what my detractors say I’ll do. We both agreed. We play this by the book. Which means… he stays in Iowa.”

 

“Does he have to stay in the Secret Service?”

 

Mom… I can’t ask him to quit his job. He’s happy as an agent. And he’s amazing. He deserved to run the detail.” Jack sighed, again. “I should have been the one banished. He didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

His mom and dad slouched in their chairs, their faces long and weary. Sorrow hung in their eyes. Andrew spun his wine glass, twisting the stem between his fingers.

 

“We are going to spend Christmas together,” Jack began slowly. “He’s going to fly in for an extended vacation. We’ll be together for Christmas, and maybe even New Years.”

 

Mary brightened, sitting up with a smile. “Oh! We’ll finally get to meet him?”

 

“Mom… I think I want it to be just Ethan and me for Christmas.” Jack winced.

 

“Oh.” Mary shifted, leaning back. She looked across, to Andrew. “Oh.”

 

“I think that’s a good idea.” Andrew jumped in. “You two need some quality time together. Without chaperones.” He winked at Jack. Mary tsked, ruffling her napkin across the table at Andrew. “You and Ethan need this time.” Andrew nodded, and he held up his wine glass, a silent toast to Jack.

 

“Thanks, Dad.” Jack clinked his wine glass to Andrew’s.

 

“But, we do really want to meet him.” Andrew gave him a long, lean stare. “We need to meet this man that’s stolen your heart. He must be something absolutely amazing.

 

* * *

 

Later, after Mary personally delivered Thanksgiving meals to all of the Secret Service agents on duty, and after Jack and Andrew had polished off a few beers on the back porch, Jack sat alone, watching the stars wink overhead through the empty branches of his parent’s old oak tree. He closed his eyes, trying to capture the peace of the moment, the evening, the love of his parents and the way they tried to make the whole world feel small and simple and cozy again.

 

He felt empty, though. Like there was a hole in his chest, an ache that needed to be filled.

 

Jack pulled out his phone. His hands shook, just faintly, and a warmth sprung up in his chest, spreading out from his heart. He needed this, needed him. No matter who he was or where he was, he would always need him. His soul wasn’t complete without him; more than anything else, that was true.

 

If there was one thing he was thankful for, it this: that he’d found the other half of his soul, and, despite everything that was set against them, everything between them, they had made it work. Were making it work, day by day. That was worth holding on to, with both hands held tight.

 

Breathless, he dialed Ethan’s number, and waited as the phone rang.

 


 

 

 

Second Excerpt from Kris’s Story

 

Welcome to this week’s Bauer’s Bytes!

I’m a little under the weather today, so instead of a new story, I’m giving you another snippet of Kris’s story. 🙂 This takes places shortly after the first excerpt. The story, at this point, is set in the days following September 11th, 2001. Enjoy!


 

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

September 21st, 2001

 

Uzbekistan was every third world nightmare Kris had ever had, rolled into one depressing, festering city.

Abandoned Soviet factories lingered like scars on the cityscape. Desperately poor Uzbeks huddled on the street corners, their faces lined with weariness and the ravages of occupation, war, and endless struggle. Heroin traffickers from Afghanistan flooded Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s streets with the cheapest grade of their drugs, and high Uzbeks lay in ditches and on the side of the road in a stupor. The rest of the heroin was refined and sent on to Russia.

Everyone was armed. Everyone carried Russian-made AK-47s over their shoulder, and RPGs and machine guns rested on the back of nearly every rusted-out pickup truck. From the airport, Kris and George sped through the capital to the US embassy in a blacked-out SUV.

The embassy’s political officer met them, ushering them into empty quarters the Marines had vacated for their arrival. Dorm-style beds, and a sink in the corner. A tiny shower, with the water tank directly above. To start the shower, they had to pull a long chain, which would empty the water tank down onto their heads. Hopefully, not in one go.

The political officer and ambassador fed them, spreading out American-style burgers and French fries on a long table in the ambassador’s conference room. There, they got their up-to-the-moment briefing.

“We got word that Shura Nazar officially invited your team into their territory this morning. We received a cable from Dushanbe Station, in Tajikistan. The Shura Nazar diplomat there gave our embassy coordinates for your entry.”

George smiled. “Fantastic.” He turned to Kris and nodded once.

Kris tried to smile back, but it was tight, his lips pressed to his teeth, almost painfully. Guess that was the only recognition he was going to get for making the connections with the Shura Nazar, and guiding Dushanbe Station through their negotiations with a completely foreign and alien potential ally.

What else was new?

Iranian forces were already on the ground. Their Ministry of Intelligence had sent operatives and officers into Afghanistan following September 11th and were already embedded with Shura Nazar units in the south and the west. “Iran, and the Shia government there, hate the Taliban. The Taliban murdered eleven Iranian diplomats when they seized the Iranian embassy.”

“We really don’t want anything to do with the Iranians.” George scowled.

“They’re staying well away from the locations your team is planning on inserting. But, they sent this though the French embassy this morning.” The political officer spread out an Iranian-made map of Afghanistan, with detailed notes of al-Qaeda and Taliban positions labeled throughout the southern region of the country.

“We’ll have to check this out. Get eyes on. We can’t launch without confirmation that these are actual Taliban and al-Qaeda locations.”

“The Iranians told the French to tell us to ‘keep it’. We wanted you to see it first.”

“Forward it to CENTCOM. See if they can get satellite coverage over the targets. Get them on deck for when the bombing starts.”

 “The Uzbeks have reported that the Taliban MiG fighters are grounded. You don’t have to worry about air-to-air intercept. Just surface-to-air.”

“MiGs? Who was flying MiGs for the Taliban? They don’t have that military capacity.” Ryan, George’s deputy on the CIA team, frowned, his deep brow furrowing hard.

Kris leaned forward. “Russian mercenaries were flying for the Taliban for a hundred thousand dollars a day. The Taliban could buy that with their drug and oil money. But Moscow has told all mercenaries to get out and get out now.”

“Thought Moscow said they couldn’t control their mercenaries? Hasn’t that been their line for years?” The ambassador’s eyes twinkled.

“Moscow says whatever they need to say, whenever they need to say it.”

The ambassador snorted. “And, your Special Forces team arrived yesterday. They’re bunking at the airport. With the way the weather changes, they want to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”

Flying over the Hindu Kush mountains and into Afghanistan was fraught with danger under the best conditions. The mountains pushed most helicopters—which were the only possible means of transport into the Shura Nazar held regions of Afghanistan—to their upper limits. The helos shuddered in the thin air, fighting physics and wanting to drop out of the sky. Fog and snow sometimes blinded out the passages, leaving the pilots flying in total white-out conditions. 

“Smart. What’s the weather like?”

“Looks like there’s a break in the cloud cover tomorrow. If all holds, you’ll fly out then.”

 

 * * *

 

The international airport at Tashkent looked like a haphazard series of shipping containers stacked together. Once, it had been painted powder blue, probably by the Soviets, who had a thing for pastels. The flight line was cracked asphalt, weeds filling the divots and cratered holes, never to be repaired. Sinkholes marred the expanse, filled in with cheap tar and sand.

Decrepit MiGs from the days of the Soviet Union languished next to mothballed military helicopters. Nothing had flown in years.

A few squat hangars, their windows broken, sat on the edge of a cracked, unused runway. Light spilled from the open doors and a team of Special Forces operators sat around a mountain of gear.

The political officer drove George and the team right to the hangar, pulling up in front of the team. One man stepped forward, a giant of a man with fiery red hair and a thick beard. He waited as the team piled out. Frigid wind whipped through Kris, cutting through his fleece pullover as he stood on the busted tarmac.

“Captain Sean Palmer?” George strode ahead, hand outstretched.

“That’s me, sir. Special Forces ODA 505, at your service.” Palmer and his small operational detachment would be reporting to George, putting themselves, for the duration of the mission, at George and the CIA’s command.

George introduced the team, Captain Palmer shaking hands as they went around the circle. George turned to Kris last. “And, this is Kris Caldera. He’s the agency’s Afghanistan expert, my political affairs officer, and our linguist on the ground.”

Palmer looked him up and down before holding out his hand. Kris was less than half his size. “Sir,” was all Palmer said.

Kris nodded, gave Palmer a half-smirk, and shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket. He tucked his face into his scarf.

Palmer brought them into the hangar, to the circle of men who they’d be operating with for future days, weeks, or even months. Some cleaned their rifles and handguns. Others joked around. One was reading.

“Everyone, our Agency people are here.” Palmer introduced them, and went from man to man, finally coming to the last. “And this is Sergeant David Haddad, team medic.”

Haddad nodded to Kris and held out his hand, stepping forward to meet him halfway. Kris shivered, but Haddad’s hand was warm as they touched. Unlike the others, Haddad didn’t hesitate, or raise his eyebrows, or give him the skeptical onceover. “As-salaam-alaikum.”

Wa alaikum as-salaam.” Kris tried to smile. His lips were still buried in his scarf.

Palmer spoke, puling Kris’s attention from Haddad. “Gentleman, I’d like to get on the same page with you asap. Do you have time for a briefing?”

George nodded, and he beckoned Kris and Ryan to join him and Palmer at Palmer’s small command post—a map and a laptop open next to a flashlight in the hangar—while Jim, Derek, and Philip stayed with the Special Forces team. Kris looked back, once.

Haddad caught his gaze. He smiled, nodding to Kris before turning back to his book.

 

 * * *

 

Marhaaba.”

Haddad turned away from his book, looking up at Kris. A ghost of a smile turned up one corner of his mouth. “Kee fak?”

Kris smiled. “I thought I placed your accent. Jordanian, yes?” He’d said hello to Haddad in the Jordanian dialect, with the sharper As and the shortened phrasing.

“I grew up in Amman. My mother was a dual citizen. They wanted me to get an American education, so we moved to the states when I was a teen.” He peered at Kris. “You? I can’t place your Arabic.”

“I’m Puerto Rican, actually. Not Middle Eastern.”

“From the island?”

“No, the other Puerto Rico. New York.”

Haddad chuckled. “I didn’t think they spoke Arabic in Puerto Rico.”

As curiosity about his age went, it was one of the nicer, and subtler, questions. At Langley, one of the range officers who’d signed off on Kris’s weapons qualification before the mission had stared at him and outright asked, “Aren’t you a little young for this mission?”

“I studied languages in high school and college. I pick them up easily. I was fluent in Arabic in two years, familiar with most of the dialects in three. Farsi a year after that. I taught myself Dari after the Agency hired me.”

“You speak Spanish, too?”

Sie. Y tu?”

“Umm…” Haddad chuckled. “I’m just the team medic. It’s a good thing I already knew Arabic. You can’t teach this dog any new tricks.”

Something curled through Kris’s veins, a familiar warmth. “Oh, I’m not sure about that.” He winked.

Mortification drenched Kris, sliding down his bones and under his skin like hot oil. What was he doing? Flirting? With a soldier, a member of the Special Forces? On a mission? His face burned, and he looked away, squinting at the mountain of gear boxes the team had brought with them. Would the ground open up beneath him, please?

God, had George seen that? After his ridiculous spiel to Kris about keeping himself “contained” and to “not advertise”? There he was, flirting with the hot soldier who gave him the time of day. Proving George’s bullshit. Fuck.

Haddad reached for Kris’s ruck, lying nearby. Their gear had been brought to the airport and dropped off, ready and waiting for the final flight into Afghanistan. Haddad dragged Kris’s between them. “I added more gear to your ruck.”

Kris crouched, hiding his groan. Not more shit.

Haddad tugged open the ruck and pulled out each item one by one. “Your headset and radio, extra ammo—” Kris already had his 9-mil strapped to his thigh.  “—compass, beacon, maps of all our areas of operations and marked with escape routes, sleep sack, poncho liner, night scope, day scope, flashlight, backup flashlight, GPS, spare batteries, more spare batteries, and more batteries. And everything else you brought.”

His clothes were squished in the bottom, next to a paperback he’d picked up in Germany and his all-weather CIA laptop. “Will five million in cash fit?” He still had the duffel from headquarters under his control. For the moment, it was at the embassy, locked in the ambassador’s safe.

Haddad stared at him. “We talking in ones or in hundreds?”

“Twenties and hundreds.”

Shrugging, Haddad pointed to the bottom of the ruck. “In between the flashlights, maybe?” He grinned. “We should be able to make it all fit.” Haddad shoved everything back into the ruck and stuffed it closed. “Here, try it on.”

The pack was definitely heavier than before. A radio antenna stuck out over one shoulder now, rising tall. His sleeping bag pushed his head forward. Kris stumbled under the weight as he hefted it on his shoulders, but managed to get it settled.

It felt like he was carrying an elephant on his back. He could barely breathe. If he took a step, he’d collapse.

Haddad stared at him. “Good?”

“Yeah.” Kris tried to smile. His eyeballs were going to pop out of his skull if he breathed too deeply.

He probably weighed one third what Haddad did. Haddad’s biceps bulged out of his long-sleeve undershirt like he was a professional NFL linebacker. His chest was solid muscle, tapering down to a trim waist and a belly that had never seen an ounce of fat. Next to him, Kris wasn’t a twink, he was a twig. He was a matchstick, and the ruck was going to snap him in half.

But Haddad smiled at him, again, that small, tight smile.

Kris’s knees weakened, and not from the load.

Shit. He was fucked.

Haddad was gorgeous. He’d recognized that immediately. Someone would have to be blind to not see Haddad’s good looks. He was impressively built, with sculpted muscles that screamed of hours spent in the gym, training his body to perfection.

But, there was more, too. There was laughter in his dark eyes, something that viewed the world unflinchingly and kept a spark alive. And, something deeper. Something that seemed to tug at Kris, a force that made him want to fall into David Haddad, stand and bask beneath his gaze. He had a presence, a pull, and it worked on every bone in Kris’s body. Haddad had his own gravity well, and Kris was a shooting star, brushing too close to his orbit.

No, he couldn’t go there.

Part of him felt like he was falling already, flying at the speed of light right at Haddad.

God, he was fucked. So fucked. He was here to fight a war. Avenge the people who had died, whom he’d let die. Try to fix, somehow, everything he’d done wrong, everything he’d let happen. Not crush on a Special Forces soldier. The army frowned on men like him, anyway. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was the rule of law. Anyone in the military who was as gay as he was had to keep their mouths firmly shut.

That wasn’t his style. And, it didn’t seem like Haddad’s either.

 “Let’s get this off you.” Haddad helped him slough off the pack, taking the weight easily in one hand. It had to weigh at least sixty pounds. He tried to hide the deep breath he took, the way he rolled his shoulders. They felt like he’d ripped them off and tried to shove them back into joint the wrong way.

Pain wasn’t sexy. Struggling wasn’t sexy either. He had to carry his weight. Not fall behind, or slow the team down. He’d sworn he would shove George and Ryan’s skepticism in their face, rub their snide looks in his success. He’d sworn he’d do the right thing, dedicate everything he had to the mission, to revenge.

He wouldn’t have time for crushing on Haddad.

He’d broken out in a light sweat hefting the pack, but now that it was off, the frigid Tashkent wind chilled him to the bone. He shivered, shoving his hands back in his black jacket and tucking his face in his wool scarf.

Haddad pulled out a beanie from his cargo pants. “Here. This will help.”

Kris frowned. His hair was his best feature. He’d actually been able to style it that morning. Maybe the last morning for a long, long time. He wanted to enjoy the feeling.

“Your hair is very stylish.” Haddad winked. “But, I promise you. You’re going to want this. It’s only going to get colder.”

Cheeks burning, Kris took the beanie.

 

 * * *

 

The weather cleared the following night. At daybreak, Kris, George, and the rest of the CIA team left the embassy, heading back to the Tashkent airport. Derek, their pilot, had stayed behind, bunking with Palmer, Haddad, and the rest of the Special Forces team.

When they arrived, the team was loading the squat, fat helicopter that would take them over the Hindu Kush mountains and into Afghanistan. The rotors kept spinning as the soldiers stacked the gear waist high along the center of the cargo area, strapping everything down in a hodge-podge game of Tetris. Mini mountains of equipment and rucks filled the cargo area, almost butting into the fold-down canvas seats along the bulkheads. Kris searched for his, trying to find the smallest rucksack in the mountain of gear. That pack was going to be his home away from home, for maybe half a year. Maybe longer.

“Caldera.” Haddad’s deep voice called out to him, barely audible over the roar of the rotors. Haddad waved to him from near the front of the helo, beckoning him. He had Kris’s ruck on the deck, next to his own.

Haddad’s medic pack made Kris’s ruck look miniscule.

Kris picked his way through as Palmer’s men and his CIA coworkers crammed themselves into too-small seats and shoved their legs around the stacked gear. There was just enough room for the gear and their bodies if they kept their knees up to their chests.

Around him, the helo rumbled, vibrating like it was trying to shake them all off. He imagined every screw turning loose and falling out, the helo coming apart into a billion pieces on the tarmac and leaving them standing in the center of the rubble. The engines roared, the rotors sounding like an endless train was running over them, over and over again.

Haddad pushed down one of the folded canvas seats and passed Kris a headset with padded earphones. He slid them on, careful about his spiked hair. The roar faded, the volume on the world turned down. Kris still felt the vibrations in his bones, felt his organs rumble and pulse, but at least he could hear himself think.

Haddad’s smooth voice came through the headset. “You’re going to want to put on that beanie I gave you. The rear ramp and side doors will be kept open so the door gunners can hold position throughout the entire flight. It’s going to be frigid.”

Kris tugged on Haddad’s beanie and zipped up his fleece jacket. He had his thick outer jacket shoved in the top of his ruck, and he crouched down to grab it. As he did, the helo’s engines turned over, spinning up with a wail. He pitched sideways and then forward, the helicopter shuddering and shaking, knocking everyone around. He braced himself, reaching for what was closest. Both his hands wrapped around Haddad’s thighs, his face mashed into Haddad’s hip.

“Sorry! Shit, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Kris scrambled back, falling on his ass. He’d inadvertently hit on Haddad yesterday, and now this? He could practically feel George and Ryan’s scorn burning into his back, feel the weight of judgment crashing down on him. This wasn’t the time, nor the place. He had assholes to prove wrong. Falling into the lap of hunky Sergeant Haddad was not part of the plan.

Gently, Haddad helped him up, holding onto his elbows until he was steady on his feet. Haddad held onto the helo’s hand holds and pulled Kris’s leather gloves and camo poncho liner, a silken, down-filled blanket that felt like a slice of heaven when Kris had first handled it, out of his ruck. “Put on the gloves, too. And keep the liner near. You’ll probably want to wrap up in it.”

Kris nodded, looking away. Was bone-melting mortification going to be his default setting now, especially around Haddad? He was off to a great start. Kris strapped himself into his seat, waiting stiffly as Haddad buckled in next to him. Haddad’s muscles, wrapped up in his own layers of fleece and heavy jacket, pushed against Kris, their bodies pressing together from shoulders to ankles. He tried to shift away, as subtly as he could.

Through the headset, Kris heard Derek talk through their takeoff, their route through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, over the mountains, and into Afghanistan. Derek spoke to Tashkent tower, CENTCOM, and CIA CTC directly, bouncing signals off satellites to reach three different places on earth simultaneously. The flight crew, bundled up in near-Arctic cold weather gear, took up positions at the massive machine guns mounted at the side doors and rear ramps as the helo lifted off.

Their mission, officially, had begun. They were on their way to Afghanistan.

They banked hard and turned south east, driving low and fast toward the border. Tashkent disappeared, turning to sprawling farmland, the land worked over by stooped men with wooden hand tools and mules. They were flying through time, it seemed, gazing down at centuries past. Dirt roads cut between the farms, snaking through untouched steppe and rugged wilderness.

Kris pressed back against the seat, pushed by the force of Derek’s acceleration. Rays of bitter sunlight split into the cabin, knives that seemed to slice through the freezing air. He squinted, fumbling for his sunglasses. Haddad, of course, already had his on.

Grassland and steppe beneath them faded, replaced by dust and scrub highland. Roads vanished, turning to trails, and then rutted tracks that only camels could traverse. Part of Kris wanted to lean out and take it all in. These were ancient roads, caravan tracks used by Silk Road travelers, and before that, the first humans to cross the Asian continent. He wanted to revel in it, in history and sights that no one had been able to see for years.

But he was too damn cold.

Ten minutes into the flight, Kris was a popsicle. He shivered, huddling into his jacket as the temperature kept dropping. He burrowed under the poncho liner and tried to pull his beanie down farther. Tried to tuck his face into the top of his jacket. The rest of the team was bundled up as well, but they all had at least a hundred pounds on him to begin with. He was the runt.

As if to spite him, Derek pushed the chopper faster, dropping altitude until they were running full speed down the length of a twisting wadi. There was nothing beneath them, no signs of life. The earth looked like the moon, like the ocean had been drained and they were the last humans on the planet at the end of the world. Ahead, the mountains on the border of Afghanistan soared, scraping the sky with peaks of snow and ice.

He left his stomach behind as the helo rose, a dramatic ascent that pitched them nearly vertical. He was strapped in, but still, he flailed. Haddad reached for him. His poncho liner slipped, but Haddad caught it, wrapped it tighter around him. The mountains seemed to encircle them, getting closer, closer, until Kris was certain they were going to crash. He flinched, squeezing his eyes shut.

Haddad’s hand landed on his knee, squeezing once.

Kris heard Derek calling out altitude readings. He’d never heard Derek’s voice go that high, that strained, as he heard through the headset. Once, back at Langley, Derek had walked them through the ball-shriveling terror that was flying over the Hindu Kush. Few had ever done it, and lived. No Americans ever had. The mathematics and physics alone were almost suggested it was a next to impossible flight.

Most helo pilots thought they were hot shit if they flew up to ten thousand feet in altitude. The hindu Kush mountains started at ten thousand feet, and then went straight vertical, as if they held up the sky, poked through the atmosphere and jabbed at the stars.

When he opened his eyes, they had leveled off and were flying between two massive walls of snow-and-ice-coated stone. At fourteen thousand feet, Haddad signaled the rest of the team, and everyone reached for oxygen masks above their heads. Haddad pulled Kris’s down and showed him how to hold it, putting the aviator’s mask over his face. Cold oxygen flowed, frigid, but welcome. His head, which had started to ache, cleared. 

Derek threading the mountain passes, their rotors buzzing snow flurries off the sides of peaks, close enough that their rotors whistled next to the rock face. He could reach out and brush the ice, if he wanted. Jagged peaks of untouched, pure ice touched the sky in every direction. Sunlight pierced the sky, falling through the mountains like samurai swords, like blades from a vengeful god. They and their helo were tiny, insignificant, and as far from humanity, from life as he knew it, as he’d ever been. Were there any humans on the planet more remote than them? If someone had told Kris they were actually on the moon, he would have believed them.

Did time still exist? Kris could hear his own heart beat, the hiss of the oxygen, and the rumble of the rotors, but other than that, it was like being dropped into someone else’s memory. Each blink lasted a lifetime, the world a smear that passed before his eyes.

Derek continued to call out elevation markers. Sixteen thousand feet. Sixteen-five.

He couldn’t stop shivering. Haddad’s hand on his thigh was the one warm point of contact in his whole body. He wasn’t going to make it to Afghanistan. He was just going to freeze, aside from his knee, on this flight.

Haddad felt his shivers, he was certain. At seventeen thousand, two hundred feet, Haddad pulled out his poncho liner and a second jacket from his ruck and laid them both on top of Kris. Kris hid his face in the fleece and turned into Haddad. Fuck his pride. He needed the warmth.

Haddad wrapped one arm around him and pulled him close.

The jagged peaks eventually gave way, turning to endless stretches of rumbling brown hills, snow snaking in waves across the higher elevations until that too petered off. Beneath them, as far as the eye could see, was the earth made wild, unimpeded wilderness, void of any human touch. Hills and valley, rugged and brown and filled with dried ravines, scrub brush and steppe land. No humans. No life at all.

Finally, almost two hours after the flight began, the helo turned south west and headed into the mouth of the Panjshir Valley.

The Soviets, during their occupation, had called the Panjshir the Valley of Death. They’d lost more soldiers in that valley than anywhere else, and had come to a standstill in their occupation trying to press deeper into the wild Afghanistan mountains. They’d failed, until they’d turned tail and ran. The valley had been a graveyard of invaders for centuries, the Soviets only the most recent to meet their end at the hands of the Afghans. Before them it had been the British. Before the British, Alexander the Great had been stopped on the land soaring beneath them.

Would America be the next great empire to find its end in Afghanistan? Would they themselves meet their end in this Valley of Death?

From the sky, Kris spotted the remains of the Soviet occupation and endless civil war everywhere: rusted-out tanks and troop transports, bomb craters that had obliterated the roads, tattered remnants of minefield warning signs. Square-shaped mud houses riddled with bullet holes huddled together around the winding banks of the Panjshir river, the waters a deep, unfiltered sapphire. Green grass murmured around the tiny villages before petering out to brown wastelands and dusty wadis. Beauty and desolation, life and death. Afghanistan.

Derek called over the headset, “Three minutes to LZ!”

Palmer and George popped up. The rest of the team turned on, going from sleepy laziness to full speed in a half second. Jackets and poncho liners were stowed, shoved into packs. Books and music players disappeared. They strapped on their gear, tightened their helmets, and readied their weapons.

Kris tried to keep up. His breath still fogged in front of his face. He couldn’t feel his cheeks. His lungs felt like they were frozen from the inside.

One minute!”

Ahead, a bend in the river cut a wide, barren portion of the valley off from the rest of the villages. A group of rusted pick-up trucks waited, while Afghan men clutching rifles stared at the sky.

The helo banked hard and spun. Tilted, wobbled left and right.

Finally, they set down with a lurch on the dusty ground.

Palmer started barking orders, and his men burst out of the chopper, taking up protective positions. A group of three Afghans started for the chopper, AK-47s in their hands. Behind them, a ring of rusted and bullet-riddled pickup trucks waited, Afghans leaning out to the cabs and the back of the beds, watching.

Every man held a weapon. Every man stared at the helo, at the team, their eyes dark, gazes pinched.

George and Palmer strode across the grass and dirt field, under the watchful eyes of the entire team. Kris saw fingers half-squeezed on triggers on nearly everyone. They were at the coordinates the Shura Nazar had given them. Was this their welcoming party? Or a trap? Kris searched the faces, looking for one he recognized, a photo from the files he’d read backwards and forwards at Langley.

He should be out there. He’d negotiated the bones of the alliance, had done the leg work to make this happen. He needed be there with George and Palmer.

Haddad held him back, though. “Wait for the signal.”

In the field, outside the wind kicked up from the spinning rotors of their helo, Palmer reached out and shook hands with one of the Afghans. George greeted him next. Their bodies were stiff, and the Afghan in the center glared at them both. He’d shouldered his rifle, but the others hadn’t. Palmer waved to the helo, though.

“All right, now it’s showtime.” Haddad looked down at Kris, his deep eyes searing into him. “You’re going to kick ass, Caldera. I know it.” He guided Kris out of the chopper, jogging them both out to where Palmer and George waited. Haddad kept close, inside Kris’s shadow, his weapon at the low and ready.

The rotors over the chopper still spun, kicking dust into the air and blowing icy wind in cyclones around the raggedy group. Towering over them, steel-gray mountains scraped the cloudless sky, like the valley was the dungeon of the earth.

Kris spoke in Dari, holding out both hands for the Afghan man to take, to grasp. “Thank you for your hospitality. We’re the Americans. We’re here to help you destroy the Taliban.”

“Welcome to Afghanistan,” the man said. He held out both hands, taking Kris’s and drawing him into an embrace. He smiled, his teeth square and yellowed, smile gaping where teeth had fallen out. “The Shura Nazar welcomes you to our fight. I am Fazl. Come. We will take you to your new home.”

 


Timestamp: Shortly after September 11th, 2001; early part of Kris’s forthcoming novel

 

Ever After: Day One – Sergey & Sasha post-Enemy Within

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

We’re going back to Sergey & Sasha in this week’s Byte, picking up immediately after Ever After, A Work in Progress. ***Ever After, A Work in Progress & Ever After: Day One are both set immediately post-Enemy Within, and contain significant spoilers for Sergey & Sasha’s storylines! If you have not read Enemy Within, this Byte is NOT for you!***

I’ve had multiple requests for Bytes about how all the characters are doing post-EO series. I have been careful to keep all the Bytes to the very immediate future surrounding the EO series. I do this because I want to keep some secrecy around where the next set of books is going, and where the characters are journeying in their next trilogy. Occasionally, I drop some hints as to what is coming next… such as in last week’s Byte, High Holy Halloween! 😉

Happy Reading!

 


 

 

Sasha’s hand stroked up and down Sergey’s arm, fingers ghosting over his skin.

 

They lay side-by-side in Sergey’s bed, Sasha’s leg hooked over both of Sergey’s. Sergey propped his head up on one hand, gazing at Sasha. Sasha bunched a pillow under the side of his head, and both of his hands were touching Sergey, stroking his arm and his cheek, fingers sliding over his face and down to his jaw, into his hair, as if he couldn’t get enough. His gaze seemed to memorize Sergey, an endless, unblinking stare.

 

“What can I do for you?” Sergey kept his voice to a whisper, trying not to break the spell that seemed to wreathe them both, wreathe the bed and his bedroom. Since Sasha had returned with him to the Kremlin, each moment had seemed like a dream, each second that passed where Sasha stayed an impossibility. Panic hung over Sasha like a raincloud, a tension that clung to his skin. The air surrounding him seemed to vibrate, chords of anxiety rumbling in Sergey’s soul. “Sasha, I will do anything for you. Anything that you need.”

 

Sasha shook his head. His cheeks mashed into the pillow. “I do not know what I need,” he rumbled. “I’m trying not to think.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple rising and falling slowly. “I should not be here,” he breathed.

 

Sergey grabbed his hands, tangling their fingers together. It hadn’t even been one day. Not even one, single day. He’d just screamed Sasha’s name, shouted down the Kremlin with his release. Sasha had come undone, burning Sergey’s thigh with his own release after pleasuring Sergey with his mouth. Couldn’t they have one day? Couldn’t their happiness last past this moment?

 

“Sasha… please…”

 

Sasha prickled like a cat, every part and piece of him twitching as his eyes closed. He squeezed Sergey’s fingers. “I should not be here… but I want to be.”

 

Yobaniy nasos, finally. Sergey exhaled, and his heart started to beat again. “I told you, we will make this work. I promise. I will do whatever it takes. We will figure it out, zvezda moya.”

 

Frowning, Sasha nodded, short jerks of his head. He said nothing.

 

“Don’t run. Please, don’t run again.” He couldn’t deal with it if Sasha fled… again. His heart couldn’t take it. He’d have to turn away, forget about Sasha, and forget about the supernova that existed between their souls.

 

“Let me protect you?”

 

“What?” It was Sergey’s turn to frown.

 

“We need to keep this quiet. Secret. Let me do that. Please. Don’t… try to push…”

 

“I won’t push, Sasha.” Sergey slid his hand up Sasha’s arm, over his shoulder, and cupped Sasha’s cheek. “But don’t let the secrecy kill this.”

 

Sasha nuzzled his hand, pushing into his hold. He shook his head. Pulled Sergey closer, dragging him with his leg until their hips were pressed together, their bellies. “I am yours,” he whispered. “You have all of me. You always have, from that first night.” He leaned in—

 

In the front room, Sergey’s apartment door flew open. The heavy wood creaked, hinges screaming, and the door slammed back into the jamb. Footsteps thundered into Sergey’s Kremlin apartment, like an elephant on a stampede.

 

Pure terror flooded Sasha’s gaze. His spine went rigid, and he grabbed Sergey, hauling him close before scooting away, trying to grab his clothes and leap out of bed and pull up the sheet all at the same time. Sergey rolled up, searching left and right for his pants. Govno, Sasha had pulled them off at the foot of the bed! He couldn’t reach—

 

“Sergey! Where the hell are you?”

 

Sasha froze.

 

Sergey relaxed, slumping as he sighed. He closed his eyes. “I will be out in a minute!”

 

Of course, Ilya wouldn’t accept that. Sergey heard Ilya’s heavy boots stomping all the way through his apartment, all the way to his bedroom. Sasha bounced on one foot, trying to shove his leg through his jeans and pull them up. He was shirtless, and as red as the Russian flag. Sergey flipped the edge of the sheet over his naked crotch, as Ilya’s footsteps came closer.

 

The bedroom door pushed open.

 

Ilya strode in, as if he owned the place. For the past month, he practically had. Sergey hadn’t wanted to leave his apartment after giving everything he had to the country, and he stubbornly stayed ensconced in the walls where he remembered Sasha’s smile. Where he could relive the evenings he’d heard Sasha’s laughter, when things were simpler and his heart wasn’t broken. After spending the day rebuilding Russia, all he wanted to do was come back to Sasha. But Sasha hadn’t been there like he said he would be, and instead, Sergey had tried to live in his memories.

 

Ilya put up with exactly none of that. From the first night, he dragged Sergey out for dinner, then drinks. Late nights at the gym, when Sergey didn’t feel quite so broken and old any longer after the Arctic. A trip to basketball games in Moscow, and then hockey games. He kept Sergey moving. Kept him from wallowing, when all Sergey wanted to do was replay memories and the soundtrack of ‘what if’.

 

Sasha froze, his pants just zipped up, the fly undone. His chest heaved, rising and falling like he was about to pass out.

 

Sergey smiled at Ilya, tilting his head to the side. “Hello, Ilya. What the fuck are you doing here?”

 

Ilya had stopped dead, his boots scuffing on the wooden floor. His jaw dropped, practically unhinged, and he stared at Sasha as if he was seeing a ghost.

 

Eyes narrowing, he whipped to Sergey. His voice dropped. “What is he doing here?”

 

Sergey smiled wider. He looked down at himself – naked, just a sheet corner over his lap – and then back at Ilya. “Oh, come now, Ilya. You are not the head of the FSB for nothing.”

 

Ilya didn’t care for Sergey’s humor. He scowled at Sergey before turning to Sasha, his glare going frigid, murderous. “Fucking him over last night was not enough, hmm? You have to do it here, too?” He cursed, bitter Russian spitting from his lips. “When are you leaving? Just hurry up and get it over with!”

 

“Ilya—”

 

“Sergey needs to figure out that you are never going to actually stay! You are never going to be what he needs!”

 

Ilya—”

 

“Sergey doesn’t need you! Doesn’t need what you’ve done to him! Some days, I wish you’d never crawled into the Kremlin, or into our lives!”

 

Ilya!” Sergey stood, dropping the sheet. He towered over Ilya, completely naked. Red ringed his vision as if he were a hawk, a predator on the kill. His hands clenched and his breath came fast. “Out. Now,” he ground through gritted teeth.

 

Ilya glared at Sasha once more before he stormed out. Sergey heard him in the front room, dragging out a chair at the dining table and flopping into it. Heard the slam of a crystal tumbler and the slosh of vodka being poured.

 

Sergey turned to Sasha.

 

Sasha had flinched with every one of Ilya’s words, full body shudders that had him curling over himself, folding over until he dropped, crouching on the floor with his hands laced behind his head. He stared at nothing, his face stone.

 

“Sasha…” Sergey swallowed. What could he say? Ilya’s fears were his own. He’d told Ilya everything, every single thing that had happened between him and Sasha. When he’d found Sasha hiding in Shipunovskaya, elation had carried him straight to Ilya, hope filling his fantasies that he could go to Sasha and bring him home, convince him that all was good, that everything would be okay.

 

Ilya had reminded him of how Sasha had left, not just once, but over and over again. That Sasha had always chosen to leave, to flee the hard parts, to escape his feelings for Sergey. Flying to his death in the Arctic. Running from Sergey when Sergey admitted his own feelings. And, leaving for good, after everything. After all they’d become together.

 

Making the decision, on his own, that their love wasn’t worth the risk, or the struggle.

 

How could anything possibly work between them? Was Ilya right? Was Sasha just going to leave anyway, sometime, somehow? Could Sasha stay, with Sergey’s boisterous, all-encompassing love?  

 

“I… will go talk to Ilya.” Sergey reached for Sasha, his fingers brushing through Sasha’s blond hair. Sasha didn’t move.

 

Sergey pulled on his pants, grabbed a sweater, and then marched out to the front room. Ilya sat hunched over the dining table, glowering into a tumbler of vodka. He spun the glass on the tabletop, making the crystal warble against the old wood.

 

“That was uncalled for.” Sergey growled as he padded to Ilya, collapsing in the chair opposite him. “Sasha worked for you. He was dedicated to you. He did good work, too.”

 

“That doesn’t change what he did.”

 

Sergey scrubbed his face, squeezing his eyes closed. “Ilya… what is this about?”

 

Ilya knocked back his vodka, downing everything in one gulp. He dropped the tumbler on the table, the crystal twanging as it settled. “I have been your friend for more years than he has been alive.”

 

“And?”

 

Ilya sighed. “Are you sure this is what you really want?” He shook his head, looking away.

 

Silence. “You’ve never been homophobic before, Ilya.”

 

“I don’t mean that you want to fuck a man.”

 

Sergey kept quiet. He didn’t try and correct Ilya; what he wanted, more than anything, was for Sasha to make love to him.

 

“I mean, him. Sasha. He’s not stable. Everything he does proves that. We’ve known him for only months, Sergey. Who is he truly? What does he really want out of this? Out of you?”

 

“You think he’s using me—”

 

“I think I don’t know him enough to trust him with you. And you don’t know him enough. You didn’t think he’d leave you, but he did. What else don’t we know?”

 

What else, indeed. The things Sergey knew, really knew, about Sasha could fill a single page. But, didn’t going through hell with a man show you the depth of his character? Didn’t surviving the end of the world together reveal the center of a man’s soul? Sasha had ripped him from the crashed plane, had pulled a miracle out of broken machinery and saved Sergey’s life. He had a wall in his cabin devoted to Sergey, to his rebuilding of Russia. Those couldn’t be the actions of a man who didn’t care.

 

“Ilya, I know I want to try this. I have to try this. If it does not work, it does not work. But if it does…” He let his hands fall, palms hitting the table. “I feel more with him than I ever felt for my wives.”

 

“You were not this reckless with either of them.”

 

“What can I say? I am happy with him. He makes me happy.”

 

Shaking his head, Ilya poured another shot of vodka into his glass. He grabbed another tumbler, though, and filled it for Sergey, then pushed it across the table. “Russia will fight you, if they find out about this. They will eat you alive. You are supposed to be their savior. Not fall from grace.”

 

“I am a man. Not a savior. And I won’t make any excuses for this. For us.”

 

“If you are smart, you will hide this.”

 

“We are going to keep it quiet, yes.”

 

“For as long as he stays?” Ilya snorted into his vodka.

 

“Ilya—”

 

“I’m staying.” Sasha’s voice, his low rumble, broke through the apartment.

 

Sergey twisted, staring over his shoulder. Ilya froze.

 

“I’m staying, as long as Sergey will have me. As long as he wants me. Because I—” Sasha’s hands were clenched at his sides, tight fists that trembled. His knuckles were white. “I want—” He shook his head. “If he weren’t the president… if this wasn’t Russia… I’d—” His voice choked off. He looked away, his jaw clenching hard.

 

What would they be, if they were anyone else? Would Sasha still have the darkness inside him, the stain on his soul? Would Sergey still chase him to the ends of the earth? Was there any possibility, in any other universe, of their souls not combining, their love not sparking against each other? Or was theirs a fated love, something meant to happen, no matter what?

 

If so, then why had—

 

No. He couldn’t second guess the past. Sasha was here, now. That was what mattered. They’d come back to the Kremlin together. They were home. Together.

 

Ilya stared hard at Sasha. His glare flicked to Sergey, and he reached into his jacket pulling out a folded envelope. He set it down and slid it across the table. “I got these because I thought you would need a distraction tonight. After he left.”

 

Sergey flicked open the envelope. Inside were two tickets to the Red Army hockey game in Moscow for that evening with impressively good seats. Of course.

 

Ilya waved his hand, as if dismissing the tickets and Sergey and everything else. “But I am busy tonight. You take them. Do what you want with them, I don’t care.”

 

* * *

 

Sasha looked, if possible, even better than he did at the Heroes’ Ball in his tux. They’d showered – together – and changed into slacks and sweaters.

 

Sergey had collected Sasha’s things from his old apartment in the Kremlin and kept them, after Sasha had disappeared. He’d felt like a crazy person, hiding Sasha’s belongings in his own closet like a stalker.

 

But Sasha smiled at the clothes he’d kept, and he picked through the box until he pulled out a navy-blue sweater and a pair of black slacks he’d gotten from the GUM. Sergey watched him dress, watched him brush his teeth and style his hair, and the whole time, his heart seemed to beat like a hummingbird’s, running wild in his chest. I want this. I want to see him like this every day. I want to keep him only an arm’s length away? How do I? How do I keep this going?

 

He rushed to dress after, and they grabbed their coats and raced down to the limo waiting in the courtyard. His security detail didn’t blink when Sergey appeared with Sasha.

 

Sasha sat like a man being led to his death in the back of the limo. Stiff and facing front, like he was being read up for mutiny and treason charges before a court martial. “Is okay, Sasha. The president can spend time with a Hero of Russia. Is normal.”

 

Sasha nodded, once. His hands gripped the leather seat, denting the cushion. Sergey tried to read emails on his phone, catch up with the world. Scan the headlines. But his gaze kept sliding sideways to Sasha.

 

Once, Sasha looked back. For a moment, he almost smiled, and it was like the sun rising over the ice caps in the Arctic, turning the world back to rights.

 

They arrived at the private entrance to the CSKA Ice Palace in Moscow and were ushered in by Sergey’s bodyguards. Sasha didn’t know how to act, where to walk. The security detail tried to keep him with Sergey, walking them like a pair. Sasha tried to disappear, slink away, evaporate from the world.

 

The men on the security detail were all new, his old team shot dead in Sochi. Ilya had picked his new team once they were back in Moscow, after everything. Sasha didn’t know any of them. They treated Sasha like he was someone special, though, someone important with Sergey, and not like he was just an afterthought. Sasha clearly didn’t know how to deal with it.

 

Their seats were center ice, right on the arena floor. Sergey was recognized immediately, and a cheer thundered down the arena. Spotlights circled over their heads. Sergey waved and waved to the crowd, and his face appeared on the jumbotron screen at the end of the arena.

 

Sasha sat stiff in the chair beside Sergey, trying to disappear. But, the camera caught him looking up at Sergey, and that image went straight to the jumbotron.

 

Sergey had never seen that look on Sasha’s face. It was something beyond adoration, beyond caring. Beyond love, even.

 

Sergey looked down, back at Sasha. The camera caught on that Sasha was someone special, a VIP with the president, and they zoomed into his face. For a second, the feed caught a fraction of a smile curling up Sasha’s lips before he realized that every eyeball in the arena, and across most of Russia, was fixed squarely on him. In a flash, he turned into a turtle, trying to disappear into his wool jacket. Tried to turn invisible through sheer force of will alone.

 

The cameras panned away, respectfully deferring when Sergey waved them off. Sasha vibrated beside him for the entire pregame, silent and tense, hunched in his seat with his hands pressed between his knees. He brushed Sergey’s shoulder, though, when they stood for the national anthem.

 

During the first period, Sasha pressed the side of his shoe against Sergey’s. Let their ankles and then their calves ghost each other.

 

In the second period, Sergey bought them both Baltika beers, #6, the mid-range porter. Not the #9, the heaviest, strongest brew. But something to take the edge off. Halfway through the beer, Sasha leaned his elbow on the seat rest between them and left it there.

 

By the third period, Sergey was speaking into Sasha’s ear, explaining the Red Army’s team history and his memories of coming to the games for years. He and Ilya used to sit behind the goal, drinking beer and shouting at the players. Sasha chuckled in all the right places, and he looked up at Sergey from underneath his long eyelashes.

 

Sergey wanted to kiss him, plant one on him in the middle of the arena. He didn’t care about the game, or the cameras, or the country that would pillory him. He just wanted Sasha to keep slouching against him that way, keep turning his head toward Sergey. Keep looking at him, just like that.

 

Please. Don’t… try to push…

 

Sasha’s words – had it only been that morning? – came back, echoing through him. Let me protect you. I cannot bear it if you were attacked like I was. The only thing Sasha had asked for was time. Patience. Discretion.

 

He could give him that. Sergey smiled and leaned back, away from the temptation of Sasha’s lips.

 

When the Red Army team scored again and the arena burst into cheers, everyone leaping to their feet, Sergey wrapped one arm around Sasha and pulled him close, hugging him tight.

 

He felt Sasha’s arms wind around him in return.

 

Their eyes met.

 

Quiet happiness, contentment, the sheen of muted joy. Things Sergey had never, ever seen before were there, in Sasha’s gaze. Delight. Gratitude. Hope.

 

After the game ended, the Red Army team solidly winning against Finland’s Jokerit team, they were whisked out by Sergey’s bodyguards and escorted to the limo. Sasha stayed by Sergey’s side, close this time, as if he was meant to be there. Sergey’s protective detail didn’t bat an eye.

 

Finally, they were in the limo and headed back to the Kremlin. Sergey slouched against the back seat, his cheeks aching from all the smiles, all the laughter. He rolled his head on the black leather, gazing at Sasha.

 

Sasha stared back at him, small smile on his face. “I have never done that.”

 

“Gone to a hockey game?”

 

“Gone… on a date.”  Sasha slowly slid his hand across the seat, opening his palm between them.

 

Like a child being offered candy, he reached for Sasha, almost embaressed at his own blunt desire, his obvious thrill at holding Sasha’s hand. He wrapped his long fingers around Sasha’s heavy palm and watched Sasha swallow, watched a tendril of fear slide back into Sasha’s eyes, warring with the contented lassitude that had been there before. But, Sasha kept their hands joined. Kept their gazes connected. Kept holding on.

 

Sergey spoke softly, just above a whisper. “You said, earlier, that if I was not the president, and this was not Russia, you would…” He trailed off. “What were you going to say?”

 

Sasha squeezed his hand, painfully hard. The limo threaded through Moscow and neon light spilled over Sasha’s face, melted in swirls and drops down his skin, painting him in rainbows. “I would do this,” he breathed. “And I would never let go. Ever.”

 

Sergey’s breath hitched.

 

“I would—” Sasha breathed in, a sharp inhale. His eyes widened. “I would take you to the ends of the earth, like Jack and Ethan. And I would—”

 

Sergey yanked him close, pressing their lips together, kissing Sasha like he’d dreamed of every single night Sasha had been gone. Sasha squirmed, grunting and trying to stifle all sound, trying to press closer and trying to disappear. He grabbed Sergey’s jacket. Tried to lean away. Squeezed his eyes shut, like he was in pain, and leaned in, deepening the kiss.

 

The limo turned, and slowed. Bumped over the cobblestones of the Kremlin.

 

Sasha flew back, pressing against the far door, as far from Sergey as he could get. He stared at Sergey as he trembled, wild like a trapped animal, panicked and terrified and caught.

 

Please. Don’t… try to push… All Sasha wanted, all he asked for, was that Sergey not push him, not push this. They had to keep it hidden, keep it contained. It was the only thing he wanted, patience and control, and Sergey had promised he would give it. He’d done well at the game… Had he lost everything? One kiss, in the darkness in the backseat? Was that enough to undo it all?

 

Could he not control himself for even a moment? Was Sasha right to worry and fret, to fear and run away?

 

Sergey shook his head, apologies falling from his lips. Sasha didn’t move. He stared, shaking, quaking, frozen against the seat.

 

What would his security detail say? They were inches away, sharing the same car. How had he ever thought he could keep his love for Sasha secret from his detail? They were his own shadows. They would know everything.

 

What next? Govno, what next? After everything, their first actual date, to this?

 

Would Sasha leave?

 

The limo rolled to a stop. Ahead, the security agents slipped out. Sergey heard their boots on the pavement, heard their voices speaking in low Russian. Were they talking about them? Discussing who to call? Who to alert? Was this the beginning of the end?  

 

The door opened, and the lead agent held out his hand. “Mr. President? Mr. Andreyev? We’ve arrived. You are home.”

 


Timestamp: Immediately following Ever After, a Work in Progress, and set post-Enemy Within.