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?”
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.