For You – Sasha’s POV of the Arctic

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, we’re taking a look at Sasha’s POV in the Arctic. What was he thinking? Why did he make the choice he made? This prompt comes from Hikari, who gave a whole bunch of amazing prompts that I can’t wait to write! Thanks, Hikari!

Spoiler warning: This Byte reveals the ending of Enemy Within! Do Not Read if you haven’t finished Enemy Within!


 

First came the adrenaline.

 

The hot, slick slide coursing through his veins, licks of power that swelled his muscles, but faded fast. Weakened spurts tried to keep him going. The exploding RusFuel station. The dogfight in the plane. The crash, and saving Sergey. Storming Madigan’s Arctic base, and his rusted destroyer.

 

By the time he followed Ethan, Adam, and Sergey into the pitch black, fuel-and-salt-stench hull of the ice-bound destroyer, he’d wrung every drop of adrenaline from his weary system that he could.

 

Sasha took each step forward for one man: Sergey. Sergey wouldn’t die before him. He wouldn’t die at all, if he could help it.

 

Then came the panic.

 

A shot in the dark, watching Ethan and Adam set the explosives around the destroyer’s inner hull. Burning, in his shoulder. Sergey’s voice, calling his name. No, damn it, he wasn’t supposed to go first. He stumbled to his knees, trying to shield Sergey even as the lights flared on and a dozen men surrounded them both, weapons pointed at their heads.

 

Being hauled to the top deck and bound. Sergey went limp against him, sagging into his restraints and the inevitable. Sasha’s mind spat one word, over and over and over again: Sergey, Sergey, Sergey. Ethan was tortured in front of them, Adam was beaten beside them, and Sergey sagged more into his side. This was the end. They’d come as far as they could go. He tried to salvage the tiny bit of strength he had left, pull on damaged muscle fibers and flood his body with oxygen. When the time came, he’d fight. He’d take out as many as he could, make it hurt, make them suffer for this. Maybe, if he took out enough of them, there’d be no one left to hurt Sergey.

 

He waited, and waited.

 

Finally, there was just bare-fisted reactions. White-knuckled, clinging to whatever came in front of his face. He saved Sergey, and then Sergey saved him. Together, they leaped from the broken deck and plunged into the icy waters. Sergey’s hands helped him onto the ice cap, and he reached back, frantic, an animal seeking its mate. That same word repeated in his mind, an endless drone that consumed his thoughts. Sergey, Sergey, Sergey.

 

Too many targets. Too many threats. Jack needed to stop Madigan. Ethan was dying. He and Adam had half-empty rifles, and three men were stacked against them.

 

Sergey went with Jack as he sent hot lead toward Cook and Paloshenko. Two against one. Safer than three against two nearly-empty rifles. Sergey was safer with Jack. When his bullets ran out, he ran for Paloshenko. Sergey, Sergey, Sergey. Keep him safe. Buy him and Jack time.

 

He had nothing left against Paloshenko, aside from that mental drone, the klaxon in his mind, the mantra he repeated. Sergey. As if the word would give him strength, fill his depleted muscles with oxygen and blood and power. Sergey. A dream, one he’d dared to have, and tasted, once. Sergey. Sasha knew, from that first night he met Sergey, that he would die for this man.

 

Paloshenko’s back broke first, and he used the very last curl of strength he had to plunge his knife into Paloshenko’s heart. Sergey, Sergey, Sergey.

 

He thought he saw Ethan, painted in blood and bits of bone, sag against the ice, throw Cook’s broken body off. Scott, sliding on the ice, and then running for Adam, collapsed next to a pool of blood and another man. But the world was spinning, ice and snow and wind twirling and somersaulting, and he slumped to his knees as he whispered Sergey’s name to the wind.

 

Sasha opened his eyes and saw a half-empty IV bag resting on his forehead. Scott cursed bitterly beside him, placing tiny bandages along the cuts on his hand. “Can’t fucking read this calculator horseshit,” Scott grumbled. “Fucking hell. Why the fuck are all these bandages so small?”

 

Russian soldiers swarmed the ice, penning in Madigan’s army. Half a submarine rested on its side, a trail of debris scattered in and around the deep gouge she’d left in her wake, leading to a blown hole in the cap. She must have busted through, but tore herself apart. A scratched American flag gleamed on a dented hull panel. Honolulu. American tropics, all the way up here in the Russian ice.

 

He pulled out the IV bag and dropped it on the ice. Scott glared at him, but turned to Adam, breaking every rule of cleanliness as he re-used the IV line and stuck it into Adam’s arm. Battlefield medicine. Infection was better than death.

 

A hum broke over their exhausted group, a high-pitched whine like a jet engine. Or a snowmobile. Jack and Sergey had left on a snowmobile, chasing Madigan. Who was coming back?

 

Sergey, Sergey, Sergey.

 

Hope was not a Russian emotion. He waited for the quiet resignation, the acceptance that would sink in him like lead. Instead, he got hope’s deranged cousin, desperation, clawing at his bones. Like a frantic dog digging a hole, he felt his skin flay, his muscles tear, his bones shatter as he watched the dark dot on the horizon grow closer, closer.

 

And turn into two men, two lost lovers returning from war. Ethan gasped, his fingers gouging the ice, and then struggled to his feet.

 

They embraced, and their happiness was like a breaking dawn, a solar eclipse, a meteor shower igniting the sky. He was caught in the corona of their love, warmth bursting from them both, sheer, unadulterated joy.

 

Sergey grabbed him and pulled him close. He smelled blood. Sergey had gotten himself shot, but he was all in one piece.

 

They’d survived. Somehow, they’d all survived. It was a miracle. A Russian miracle, something that should never, ever had happened.

 

All the thoughts he hadn’t allowed himself to think rushed in at once. Now what? He was supposed to die defending Sergey, saving his life. He wasn’t supposed to live beyond this icy hell hole.

 

There weren’t supposed to be consequences for what he’d done. The dream he’d dared to dream, tasted. Stolen.

 

“You did it. Now you must go back to being Russia’s president.”

 

“Just because Moroshkin’s forces are here cleaning up Madigan’s trash does not mean I am safe. We can still make a break for it, Sasha.” Sergey kissed his temple, sweetly. “I just want to be with you. No more people shooting at us. No more plane crashes.” A glare, and Sergey held him at arm’s length. “You are forbidden from flying again. Two crashes in two weeks. Nyet. No more.”

 

That was Sergey, always thinking of the future. He was such an optimist, a disgusting optimist. They loved once, so they would love forever. They lived, so everything would be okay. That was not the Russian way.

 

“Sergey—“

 

And then Ilya arrived, the bastard showing up with the entire FSB, the whole force of the federal police. Moroshkin’s men and Madigan’s men were handedly captured, and the sky swelled with helicopters and planes. Ilya himself landed and marched across the ice, smugly proud of himself. “Mr. President, I am pleased to inform you that Moscow is once against yours.”

 

Sergey hugged Ilya, shouted with joy, held his best friend as they both cheered. Ilya had done it. He had given Sergey what Sasha never could: the future.

 

He pulled himself away in bits and pieces. Parts of his soul escaped on the icy wind. He let go of dreams, of hopes. Wild imaginings. Step by step, he released every part and piece of himself. You knew it would end like this. You knew there was no future. You should never, ever have given in.

 

Greedily, he kept his memories. Every touch. Every sigh. Every moment. Sergey had burned him, seared his soul, and he’d never recover from that. Sergey would, though. He always looked forward, never back. He’d move on, pour himself into Russia, into righting their country. Sasha would hide, slip away into the unreachable corners of their nation. There were more than enough places to disappear to, to become a ghost in. He’d have his memories, until the vodka and the depression ate through his body and his bones would end up scattered in the wilderness. Just like his old comrades had wanted a year ago. Maybe he should have just died then. This, leaving Sergey, was worse than waking up in the snow, bloody and beaten. At least then he wasn’t broken.

 

“Time to go, Sasha. Ilya has a chopper for us.”

 

He stared at Sergey, memorizing him. Committing his face, his body, the smile in his eyes, the curve of his lips, to his eternal memory, the hard drive of his heart. Sergey, Sergey, Sergey.

 

Everything I do, I do for you.

 

“Let me help Anton and Aleksey a little more. I will fly back with them later.”

 

“Hurry. I want you with me in the Kremlin. I have been dreaming of it.” Sergey squeezed his hand.

 

“You must focus on what you need to do. You are the president, Sergey. Your duty is to the Russian people. They need you now, more than ever.”

 

“Together. We will do it all together. You and me. The way it should be.”

 

He wouldn’t last a year without Sergey. Depression would kill him, murder him, the aching loss of Sergey a black hole that would suck his life away. “Ya lyublyu tyeba.” I love you. I’ve loved you from the moment you held me that first night. I will always love you. I will die loving you. But this is the way it must be. He squeezed Sergey’s hand back. Our people need you, and I am just one broken man. “Go, before Ilya has an aneurism.”

 

He got to see Sergey’s smile one last time. “Zvezda moya, I will see you soon.”

 

My star. He loved that nickname, had burned up inside when Sergey had first used it. No one ever thought he was a star, certainly not their star. For a few days, though, he’d been loved, and he’d burned bright with love himself. But like all stars, he was burning out, and every step Sergey took away from him made his soul collapse into itself. A black hole was forming in the center of his chest, in the center of his heart. Maybe not even a year. Maybe just six months.

 

He watched Sergey fly off, and the world bled away its color. Turquoise and aquamarine, crystal white and baby’s breath blue, the colors of the Arctic, smeared to gray. He ended up on a prison transport, flying to Lubyanka prison. Transferring all the prisoners was chaotic, and he slipped away from the FSB.

 

He felt a clock on his back, ticking down the days he had left. North. He’d head north. Back to the ice. He’d freeze the burn of Sergey’s love out of his soul.

 

* * *

 

Weeks later, he walked into his cabin in the Russian north, buried in the snow, off the edges of every map, and color roared back into his world.


Timestamp: Sasha’s POV during the later parts of Enemy Within and the battles in the Arctic.

 

Playing the Presidential Card – Jack and Ethan, post-Enemy Within

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, we take a look at Ethan and Jack in their married, post-presidential life. How are they settling in? How do they begin to make a normal life together, after everything. Enjoy!


 

Sure, they had a new home—their first home together—but that didn’t mean they had everything.

 

The kitchen was full of Ethan’s belongings, and the furniture was mostly a mixture of Jack’s classic style and Ethan’s ultra-modern taste. It made for an odd mix, in places. Two couches faced each other in the living room, one sleek black leather and smooth lines, and the other a warm, rumpled brown leather lounger.

 

Sometimes, they flopped onto their preferred couches and stared at each other over the divide. Who would break first and cross to the other side?

 

Ethan always did.

 

They had their king bed, their first purchase as husband and husband, but they still needed all the odds and ends that filled a house. Bathroom crap, towels and toothbrush holders and baskets. Sheets and blankets for their new bed, pillows, candles—according to Ethan—and hangars. Pictures for the walls—Jack—and maybe a set of dishware that was theirs.

 

So, off they went, shopping. First stop, Bed Bath and Beyond.

 

Jack, former president of the United States, still had a small Secret Service detail assigned to him for the rest of his life. Usually, they were older agents, agents who wanted to wind down the end of their careers with a president they’d liked. Not with Jack, though. Today, it was Agent Caldwell who was at the curb, waiting in his SUV. They said hello and chatted during the drive. Caldwell had two kids in elementary school, and he showed off pictures of their talent show and told a funny story about his kids running ragged on his wife. He’d come home to find them running wild, her in full retreat in their bedroom, like a Lord of the Flies documentary come to life. “They’re a handful right now,” he said, chuckling.

 

Ethan and Jack shared a long look.

 

The store was mostly empty mid-morning, just after opening. Caldwell shadowed their movements, hanging out a polite distance behind them, but close enough to keep an intimidating bubble of ‘keep the fuck away’ around them both.

 

Jack pushed the cart and waited as Ethan detoured into the kitchenwares. He waited… and waited… and waited. Ethan poked at the food processor, lifted and closed the panini press a half dozen times, checked out three blenders, and looked back and forth between two stand mixers.

 

Jack thought roots were going to grow out of his feet. He gave Caldwell a long, suffering sigh.

 

Finally, though, Ethan trotted back, empty handed.

 

“After all that, you didn’t get anything?”

 

“I just wanted to look.”

 

Jack stared at him.

 

They made it to curtains next. Their walls were painted butter yellow, and Jack reached for ivory linen. Ethan frowned, and grabbed an armful of sheer white panels. “These will look good.”

 

Pillows, and they both grabbed armfuls. Jack bopped Ethan on the head, and Ethan swatted him on the butt.

 

Jack picked out a dish set while Ethan loaded up on candles. Cotton and pine, sunshine and vanilla, lavender and leather. If they lit them all at once, it would be an olfactory crime. Ethan had an eclectic taste in scents. No doubt each candle was for a different room, a scent picked out for each part of their house that only he knew.

 

Bathroom crap, and Ethan was mesmerized by the electronic gadgets, the whiz bang shavers and electric mirrors, the shower radio and the digital scale. Jack picked out a neutral bathroom set and an armful of towels, and then another armful, and Ethan was still looking at two electric razors, going back and forth.

 

Of course, he got nothing.

 

Jack shook his head, keeping his smile to himself.

 

And then, they came to the sheets. They already had a blue and white comforter, and another taupe and eggshell one. Jack reached for a set of white sheets.

 

“Jack… really?”

 

Jack froze. His eyes flicked to Ethan’s, outstretched hand hovering over a pack of white king-sized sheets. “Not… white?”

 

“The thread count. It’s too low.”

 

Jack blinked. “Four hundred is too low?”

 

A slow smile spread over Ethan’s face. “What kind of Neanderthal are you?”

 

Jack pulled back his shoulders. One hand rose, landing on his hip. “A presidential Neanderthal.”

 

“Okay, you cannot play the presidential card our entire marriage.”

 

“Play the presidential card?!”

 

“Yes! You cannot pull that out, throw out that you were the president.”

 

Jack threw his hands in the air, his jaw hanging open. He looked for Caldwell. Caldwell had beat a retreat and was standing down the aisle, far out of helpful range for this. “Well… I was.”

 

“That doesn’t mean you have great taste in sheets. God, Jack. Four hundred count? Really?”

 

“Okay. You pick the sheets, big boy.” Jack folded his arms, pursed his lips. Nodded, and watched Ethan slowly walk up the aisle. “Should I give you a time limit? Your track record today for picking anything has been pretty terrible.”

 

Ethan ignored him. He picked up a set. Put it down. Picked up a different set. Set it down.

 

“Oh my God.” Jack sighed, very loudly. He rolled his head to one side.

 

Ethan picked up another set. Turned it over.

 

Progress.

 

Ethan set it down.

 

Jack started humming the Jeopardy theme.

 

Ethan would not be rushed.

 

Eventually, well after Jack dragged a stool for sale from the barwares section over and sat down on it, crossed his legs, propped up his chin, and settled in for a long wait, Ethan came back with three sets of sheets. A twelve hundred count cream, a bamboo ivory, and a satin snow white.

 

“Hmmm.” Jack led them to the register, and paid.

 

* * *

 

Hours later, Jack flopped back on their bed, panting, trying to catch his breath. He starfished out, his hands and legs limp, his body boneless. Everything tingled, their lovemaking always shredding him apart in the very best way.

 

Ethan hit the mattress next to him, lying on his side. He grinned.

 

Jack writhed, wriggling on the sheets. Ethan’s grin grew.

 

“Okay. Yeah. These are nice sheets.”

 

“Yes, Mr. President.” Ethan dropped a kiss on his lips and snuggled close.

 

“That was our first argument that wasn’t about national security or my safety.”

 

“Well. It was still about you. Kind of.”

 

“Because you accused me of playing some kind of presidential card!”

 

“No.” Ethan kissed him again. “Because I want to make sure you only have the best of everything.”

 

And just like that, his heart melted again. “Oh, jeez, Ethan.” He pressed his face into Ethan’s neck, kissed his throat. “I do have the best. I have you.”

 

Ethan’s arms wound around him, held him close. He wiggled down, found Jack’s face. Kissed him, and kissed him some more, until Ethan rolled Jack to his back and started nibbling and licking down his chest, his belly, again. “Hands flat on the sheet, love,” Ethan breathed, dropping a kiss below his belly button. “Don’t take them off.”


Timestamp: Jack and Ethan, post-Enemy Within.

Go On Without Me – Ethan’s life in Peril

 

Welcome to this week’s Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, Ethan’s life is in serious peril. He is struggling to survive, and Jack is doing his best to keep Ethan going.  Will they survive this latest threat?

 


 

“Go on without me.” Ethan’s voice was strained. His words shook, and his face contorted with pain, with anguish. “Leave me. I’m too far gone.”

 

“Ethan… Love…” Jack passed his husband another tissue. “It’s just the flu.”

 

Ethan, face half buried in his pillow, pulled the tissue to his nose and groaned, the rattle of a man assured of his own pending demise. “I’m dying.”

 

“No, you’re not. You’re going to be fine in a few days.”

 

Ethan’s sniffing sounded like a broken trombone was blaring, a tragedy of brass and snot. Jack pressed his lips together, holding back his smile.

 

“I leave everything I own to you.” Ethan sighed, long and loud, a dramatic burst that wouldn’t have been out of place from a southern belle at the turn of the last century.

 

“We’re married, love. I get your stuff automatically.”

 

Another pitiful sniff. Ethan moaned, a mournful half-sigh, half-whimper as he pushed his face further into the pillow he clutched.

 

“How about I make you some soup?”

 

“Why bother? I’m going to be dead soon. You’re just trying to feed a corpse.”

 

Jack patted Ethan’s head, smoothing back his dark strands from his clammy forehead. “I’ll be right back.” He leaned over, kissing Ethan’s hair.

 

Ethan grumbled and tried to move, tried to get away. “Don’t kiss me,” he mumbled. “You’ll get this plague, too. And then you’ll die.”

 

“I’ll take my chances, love.”

 

He listened to Ethan’s grumbles as he headed for their kitchen. Their kitchen in their home. Finally, they had a place of their own. Not the White House, or a hotel room, or an apartment in Iowa, or a jeep in Siberia, or a nuclear submarine under the Arctic. This was theirs. They had four walls, a roof, and—best of all—privacy.

 

Boxes still lined the walls, a mixture of Jack’s crap from storage—and before that, his apartment in DC when he was a senator—and Ethan’s townhome, and also their stuff from when they lived together in the White House. Their kitchen was mostly made from Ethan’s stuff. Jack had never been great in the kitchen, before Ethan, and didn’t have much in the way of useful kitchen paraphernalia.

 

Two cups sat next to their coffee maker. His, a chipped mug from his alma mater, the University of Texas, and Ethan’s rainbow cup, an art deco print of his own picture, a campaign poster from his presidential election redone in vivid pride colors. Jack smiled. Ethan had used that cup, the one he gave him for Christmas last year, exclusively since Christmas Day. He brought it with him from Iowa each weekend, and it was the first thing he unpacked from the crates Iowa had shipped to DC when he moved into the Residence.

 

Jack rummaged in their cabinets until he found a can of condensed chicken and rice soup and a sleeve of crackers. The soup warmed as he put a chunk of crackers on a plate. There was a half-empty bottle of Sprite in the fridge, and he filled Ethan’s rainbow mug with Sprite as the soup started to bubble.

 

Jack padded back to their bedroom—their bedroom! He still was giddy at the thought—and sat on the edge of bed. Ethan had thrown himself across their bed, pulling Jack’s pillow to him and mashing his face into the center as if he could huff Jack’s scent. He was doing his best impression of a jellyfish, stretched out as much as he could, and his legs stuck out from the ends of the sheet, his ankles hanging off the side of the bed. He was shirtless, and the ends of their sheet wrapped around his hips, leaving the tan skin of his back exposed. The muscles along his back were rolling hills, dipping into the valley of his spine and the curve of his lower back hidden beneath the sheet. His shoulders flared, muscles wrapped around his shoulder blades and up the back of his neck, and corded down his arms.

 

He was beautiful, stunningly, stunningly beautiful. Jack let his fingers drift down Ethan’s neck, ghost over his skin and down his back, along the bumps of his spine and ripples of his muscles. Ethan twitched beneath his touch, and tiny hairs rose to meet Jack’s fingers, goosebumps on Ethan’s skin erupting along his lower back and down his arms.

 

Groaning, Ethan opened one eye and peeked over his shoulder. “You shouldn’t touch me. I’m diseased.”

 

“I brought you food, love. To combat this deadly plague so you can live to fight another day.”

 

Ethan groaned again.

 

“Sit up, love.”

 

Moaning, Ethan hauled himself up, moving like a lumbering bear just coming out of hibernation. His face, normally stern, severe even, focused and intent on the mission before him, had turned into a pout, his lower lip pushed out, eyebrows pulled together. He was, for the moment, the world’s largest five-year-old, grumpy and overtired, and all Jack wanted to do was smooth his rumpled hair away from his forehead and kiss his cheek.

 

Ethan sat back against their headboard with a huge, rattling sigh. He still held Jack’s pillow, squeezing it to his chest like it was his personal teddy bear, a security blanket that he couldn’t let go of. Ethan propped his chin on top of the pillow and scowled.

 

Grinning, Jack held out the plate of crackers with the bowl of soup. Sighing again, as if Jack were forcing him to endure brutal hard labor, Ethan took the food. He huddled over the plate and bowl, slurping soup off his spoon with loud smacks and swallows. He got about half of the bowl down, and a cracker and a half, before he passed the plate back to Jack.

 

Jack traded the plate for Ethan’s rainbow mug of Sprite.

 

Finally, Ethan—kind of—smiled. He clutched the mug and sipped the Sprite, sagging back against their pillows and the headboard.

 

“You should get some rest.” Jack set the plate on the hardwood floor, out of the way, and crawled into bed beside Ethan.

 

Ethan sent him a horrified look and shrank away as if he didn’t want Jack’s touch. “Jack… Go away. You’ll get infected.”

 

“And then I’ll die along with you, like the very best love stories.” Jack hauled Ethan closer and kissed the top of his head. “Rest, love.”

 

Grumbling again, Ethan slid down until he collapsed into Jack’s lap, the side of his face mashed against Jack’s legs. He still clutched Jack’s pillow, but he curled up, almost in the fetal position as he breathed through his mouth, heavy, slow breaths that tickled Jack’s belly through his shirt. “You should start measuring my coffin.”

 

“Yes, dear.” Jack grabbed a book from his bedside table and slowly stroked one hand down Ethan’s back, over and over.

 

* * *

 

The next morning, Ethan padded out of their bedroom in his boxers, rubbing one eye with his fist.

 

Jack beamed, sitting on the couch with his coffee and the paper. “It’s alive!”

 

“Barely.” Ethan shuffled to Jack, still blinking owlishly.

 

Jack wrapped his arms around Ethan’s waist and kissed his belly, right above his belly button. He looked up and played with the waistband of Ethan’s boxers behind his back. “But, you’re certain you’ll live through this? You’ll survive the plague?”

 

“Maybe.” One corner of Ethan’s mouth curled up, just a bit. “And only because of my nurse.”

 

“You should probably give your nurse a big thank you.” Jack winked.

 

“In a few days.” Ethan still looked a little pale. But, he shuffled to the couch and collapsed beside Jack, rolling around until he had his head in Jack’s lap again. “Thanks,” he whispered, kissing Jack’s shirt-covered belly. His eyes were already closed.

 

“How did you survive the flu before me?”

 

Ethan’s smile dimpled his cheeks. “It was a cold, lonely existence before you, Jack. I suffered alone. I barely survived.”

 

Jack slipped his fingers through Ethan’s hair, massaging his scalp. Ethan hummed, sighing like a content cat, and pushed his head into Jack’s touch. “Well, I’m glad you endured. And I’ll be your nurse anytime you need.”

 

Ethan’s eyebrows quirked up, two quick bounces as he grinned wide. His eyes stayed closed, though. “In a few days, I might need my sexy nurse to take a look at a problem I have. Something seems swollen.”

 

“Is it a big problem?”

 

“Oh, yes. Very big.” Ethan rolled into Jack, pressing his face into Jack’s belly. He moaned, but he was still smiling.

 

Jack laughed, and he kept stroking his hand through Ethan’s hair. “I love you so much.”

 

Ethan finally peeked up at Jack. His eyes were warm, full of adoration, full of the kind of love that had set Jack’s world on fire and changed his life for the best. God, he loved this man, every part and piece of him. Even his flu-stricken zombie side.

 

“Love you too, Jack. Thank you for staying with me.”

 

Jack blew a kiss at his husband. “All the way, love. All the way.”


Timestamp: Post-Enemy Within. Jack & Ethan, after moving into their (first) new house together.

 

Getting On With It – Doc & Coleman after Enemy Within

***Spoilers for Enemy Within! Do Not Read if you have not read Enemy Within!***

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! This week, both Dorota and Annie had prompt requests featuring Doc & Coleman. Both wanted to see more of those two after Enemy Within, and specifically Annie wanted to know what was up with those two. Well… I guess we’ll have to see!

 


 

Watching over someone in the hospital was mind-numbingly boring.

 

The lines on Coleman’s heart monitor paraded in neat mountains and valleys, a textbook example of cardiac rhythms. All that PT paid off, despite the beers and the shots and the deep-fried diet they all loved to indulge in. Fucking Marine Corps. Keeping them healthy, despite their best efforts.

 

Doc threw his head back and sighed as dramatically as a damsel in distress fainting at the sight of the dragon about to roast her alive.

 

He couldn’t even text Adam anymore. The damn LT—well, not an LT anymore—was going off to confront Faisal’s family.

 

He’d seen Adam face down Prince Abdul in Saudi Arabia, at Faisal’s hospital, once before. That relationship seemed as cozy as a tiger getting ready to eat your face. Adam wanted to get closer to the Saudis, a family and a nation that so viciously protected their own that they’d rather face international condemnation than give up a member of the royal family who supported terrorists? They’d “handle it” on their own, they said.

 

And said family member or troublemaker was never seen or heard from again, as the fairy tale went.

 

Adam wanted to be a part of that? Was he the outsider, destined to disappear? Or was he one of the Saudis’ own now, wrapped up in sand and secrets? Would he ever hear from Adam again?

 

Groaning from the hospital bed made Doc spring forward, a jack-in-the-box bursting free from the confinement of boredom. He watched, hovering in the chair at Coleman’s bedside, as Coleman’s eyes fluttered open.

 

Doc leaned in close, beaming. “Hey beautiful,” he crooned.

 

Coleman groaned and squeezed his eyes shut. “Fuck, I wish I died.”

 

“Stop flirting.”

 

“If I were dead, you wouldn’t be here.”

 

“So you think.” Doc winked.

 

“God, you’re an asshole.” Coleman finally opened his eyes again and struggled to sit up. Doc helped him, grabbing pillows and rearranging them behind Coleman as the motorized bed slowly rose, taking Coleman with it. “So what’s going on?” Coleman looked around, taking in the hospital room, the government issue machinery, and the drab, clinical sameness of everything. “Bethesda?”

 

“Yep.” Doc sat back and kicked up his feet, resting his heels on the side of Coleman’s bed. Coleman shoved his legs off, and Doc put them back, this time resting his feet across Coleman’s shins. “The world was saved from going to hell in a handbasket. Russia is Russia again, President Spiers-Reichenbach is back in the US facing down a congressional investigation that wants to put him in jail for the rest of his life, and the L-T and Prince F skipped off to Saudi Arabia for their happy ever after.”

 

Coleman’s eyes narrowed. “The L-T is alive?”

 

Oh yeah. The last Coleman saw of Adam was him being dragged out by Cook, beaten and bloody, and shouting in Arabic at Faisal. He’d folded for Faisal when Cook threatened to blow Faisal’s head off in front of him. And, yeah, after Cook murdered Ruiz… Doc didn’t doubt that Cook was a half second away from murdering Faisal, too. Murdering them all, one by one.

 

“Yeah, Adam’s alive.” Again, Coleman glared at him, using Adam’s name instead of his rank. “He’s also not a Marine anymore. He left everything. I think that mission made him rethink his priorities.”

 

Coleman looked away.

 

“You mad, bro?”

 

Coleman shot him another dark glare, somehow ferocious even though he was propped up by a mountain of pillows and wearing a flimsy hospital gown.

 

“I didn’t think you were a homophobe.” Doc crossed his arms and glared right back.

 

“I’m not!” Coleman’s head whipped around, that glare now a permanent fixture on his mulish face. “But he fucking sold us all out. He gave us all up. He surrendered.”

 

“Because there was a gun to Prince F’s head.” Doc spoke slowly, like he was talking to a five-year-old. “What the hell was he supposed to do? Let Prince F die?”

 

Coleman huffed.

 

“There’s gotta be someone you’d give everything up for.” He watched Coleman, peering at him carefully.

 

Coleman looked away, his jaw clenching and unclenching as he stared at the tile floor, the scuffed linoleum and the rubber-stained baseboards. “Once, maybe.”

 

“You’ve got some kids. You’d give it all up for them.”

 

Sighing, Coleman’s face twisted, a rictus of pain and an eternal frustration that only came from dealing with Doc. “Yeah, but they wouldn’t care. They call some other guy Dad now.”

 

“That fucking sucks. Sorry, man.”

 

Coleman shrugged, but said nothing.

 

“If it were you in that position, you’d have done the same thing. You’d have given up if the L-T was there with a gun to his head. Or me.”

 

“I’d have let him shoot you.”

 

Doc clucked and tilted his head, playing coy. “You say the sweetest things to me. Makes my heart go all aflutter.”

 

“God, you’re so fucking annoying.” But, Coleman finally chuckled, a breezy half-laugh.

 

Doc let it slide. “So, you’re going to be set loose in a few days. If Adam texts back, and if he survives facing down Prince F’s family, then d’ya wanna go see them?”

 

“He’s facing down the Saudis?”

 

“I think something happened on the ice. When they were speaking all that Arabic, and Faisal was crying like he’d never see Adam again? Faisal said his name was ‘Faisal Cooper’ when we got back to Honolulu.”

 

Coleman’s eyebrows shot straight up, climbing into his hairline. “You think they got married?”

 

“Well…” Doc shrugged and leaned back. “So, no one takes the others name in Islamic marriages, but Prince F is Westernized a bit, so maybe he took Adam’s name to feel closer to him, especially since we all thought he was dead? Or, I dunno, for shits and giggles? But, no matter what happened, Adam decided to say fuck off to the Marine Corps, and he’s living in Saudi now. I mean, yeah, they totally could be taking it to the next step.”

 

“That will go over well in Saudi. Don’t they still stone gay guys there?”

 

Doc nodded slowly.

 

Coleman cursed under his breath. “You know, I just really wanted to work on my career. Do a high-speed assignment in a special operations unit, fast track my promotion, and then keep working hard. I wanted to go someplace.” He shook his head. “And then I landed in this fucking team.”

 

Doc smiled wide.

 

“Everyone else is gone?” Coleman’s voice softened, went thin, almost like a whisper.

 

“Yeah.” Doc sobered too, his almost maniacal glee at tormenting Coleman vanishing with a snap. “Two turned traitor, three murdered, two gone to Saudi, and you and me, left behind. It’s like a bad ‘little piggies gone to market’ rhyme.”

 

“You’re so dumb.” Coleman shook his head. He chewed his lip though, turning over the disintegration of their team, the forces that had shredded their people from the inside out. “Are Ruiz and Park getting funerals?”

 

“Park, yeah. Ruiz’s ashes are going back to his home country with his grandmother. Park’s is in his hometown.”

 

Coleman scrubbed his face, exhaling hard. “All right. We’re going to Park’s funeral. And then, we’re going to Saudi. Adam needs all the help he can get.”

 

“Gonna ride in and save him from the Saudis?” Doc winked.

 

“Yeah, if we need to. Prince F too.”

 

“I knew you had a heart of gold.” Doc playfully kicked Coleman’s leg with his foot, blowing him a kiss.

 

Coleman rolled his eyes, staring at the ceiling as if he was asking God what he’d done to deserve Doc in his life.

 

“You know you love me.”

 

“Like I love a tumor.”

 

“I’m as hard to get rid of as a tumor, too.”

 

“I fucking know. But I’m about to ask the nurse for a scalpel.”

 

Laughing, Doc clambered out of his seat and kneeled on the foot of Coleman’s bed. Coleman’s eyes went wide as he crawled up, straddling his legs until he flopped to the side, cuddling against Coleman and tucking his shoulder under Coleman’s arm, on his uninjured side. “Somedays, I almost think you like me.”

 

“What the hell are you doing?” Instead of sounding freaked out, Coleman sounded resigned. He held his arms wide, not touching Doc.

 

Doc snuggled closer. “I’ve been sleeping in that chair for days, watching over you so you wouldn’t wake up alone. My back hurts. I’m sleeping here now.”

 

“God dammit.” Coleman didn’t touch him, but he didn’t tell Doc to get the hell out of his bed, either.

 

“Hold me. This is uncomfortable.”

 

Grumbling, Coleman’s arms fell, and he begrudgingly wrapped one massive hand around Doc’s thin shoulder. “It’s like cuddling a pencil,” he grunted.

 

“And you’re a grumpy elephant, but you don’t see me complaining.”

 

Coleman snorted, but said nothing. Doc made a show of snuggling up to Coleman’s armpit and resting his cheek on Coleman’s chest. One of his hands rested on Coleman’s belly, just above his belly button.

 

Eventually, Coleman’s other hand covered Doc’s, and they fell asleep before the nurse came in to change Coleman’s IV bag.

 

* * *

 

“Bahrain?” Doc scrunched up his face as he listened to Adam on his cell phone. “Why the hell are we going to Bahrain?”

 

“It’s where we’re living now. I’ll tell you when you get here.”

 

“Is this a good reason to be in Bahrain, or a ‘we-left-in-the-middle-of-the-night’ kind of reason?”

 

“It’s a good reason.” Adam chuckled, softly. “I’ll pick you up at the airport.”

 

“Whatever, man. We just picked up our tickets. Thanks for buying them.”

 

“See you tomorrow.”

 

Adam blew off Doc’s thanks, again, for buying his and Coleman’s tickets to not-Saudi, but to Bahrain. He sounded good on the phone, though, relaxed, for once.

 

Coleman, on the other hand, looked like a spring wound too tight, looking out of place in his khakis and his polo, and holding his duffel in one meaty hand. He waited by the benches, tucked off to the side in between the airport doors and the security checkpoint.

 

They’d been given a month of leave by the Marine Corps and told to go be elsewhere. Go do something personal.

 

But how could they just fall back into their normal lives? What was normal even, anymore? Their teammates were dead, half heroes and half traitors. Their memories were tainted. Was it fair to Park and Ruiz to remember laughing with Wright and Kobayashi? Was it wrong to want them all back, to want to turn back time and go back to the nights and days they spent in Prince F’s palace, playing basketball and laughing like children? When there was never a thought that their brothers weren’t all virtuous, weren’t all knights of the round table, and they were all on the same side?

 

What was left, back in Tampa, aside from memories of traitors and heroes, and a blurred line between the two? Empty apartments, bars they used to haunt. Empty spaces in their life.

 

And, a missing leader. Adam should be there, should help them find their feet again. Should be guiding them back to true north, like any good leader would.

 

But he’d lost his own north, and he was rebuilding his own life in the desert sands. He didn’t have room for two stragglers, two lost puppies who didn’t know where home was anymore.

 

At least, that’s what Doc thought, but when he poked at Adam, asking if they could come out and see him—in a moment of pure desperation, watching Coleman’s chest rise and fall and his eyes stay stubbornly closed, and he feared he’d be the only survivor, in the end, of their team—Adam had said he wanted them to come.

 

Park’s funeral—God, it was fucking awful—was the day before.

 

They were flying out first thing.

 

Did Coleman have that same feeling of freefall? Like they’d stepped out of the back of a C-130, plummeting straight to earth, and they were waiting to pull their parachute cord. Waiting and waiting and waiting, but the ground wasn’t getting any closer, and they were still in freefall, forever it seemed. The world rushing by, and them suspended, not knowing where to go, where to spin. To pull or not to pull?

 

What would impact feel like? What was waiting at the bottom, at the end?

 

Doc kept pushing, he knew. Pushing as hard as he could, on everything. Testing the boundaries, and trying to find the limits. He needed to know where the lines were. Needed to know exactly how to push and push until he could destroy. When he wanted to blow up his world, again, he needed the blueprints as to how.

 

Coleman waited for him, looking like sasquatch trying to blend in. He couldn’t be more awkward if he tried, couldn’t scream I don’t belong here any louder. The last time he’d looked this out of place, he’d been sneaking into the White House on a campus tour.

 

“We’re all set. And yeah, we’re purposely going to Bahrain.” Doc smiled and waved the tickets, and then nodded to the TSA security checkpoint. “Ready?”

 

Coleman stared at him, silently, and then reached out, dragging Doc close, physically hauling him across the tile until they were mashed together, chest to chest. Doc’s face pressed against Coleman’s neck, and he felt Coleman’s heavy sigh, a long, shaking exhalation, as Coleman’s muscled arms settled around his bony shoulders.

 

He didn’t move. Didn’t hug Coleman back. “You alright, bro?”

 

“Yeah.” Coleman’s rough voice and his hot breath ruffled Doc’s hair, brushed over the tip of his ear. “Yeah, I’m good.” He pulled back, looking down, avoiding Doc’s gaze.

 

He should say something. Do something. Not let Coleman flounder in freefall.

 

He held out his duffel. “Carry my bag?”

 

Coleman snorted and rolled his eyes, but he grabbed Doc’s duffel and slung it over his shoulder. “Yeah, princess, I’ll carry your stuff.”

 

Doc winked. “Thanks, big boy.” Now for the push. “I’ll be sure to give you an extra special treat when we land.”

 

Coleman shook his head as he looked away, but a flush stained his cheeks and ran down his neck. Doc led them both to the security checkpoint, and Coleman stayed quiet, not saying a word, for the first half of their trip.

 

Until Coleman pushed back.

 

Three hours before they landed in Frankfurt, Coleman leaned against Doc’s shoulder and whispered, “Ever joined the mile high club?”


Timestamp: Post-Enemy Within, after Adam & Doc text, and Doc & Coleman discharge from Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Ever After, a Work in Progress – Sergey & Sasha post-Enemy Within

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, we’re taking a look at Sergey and Sasha… post Enemy Within.

***If haven’t read Enemy Within, this Byte is not for you! Major spoilers for Sergey & Sasha’s plotline in Enemy Within!!***

Warning for internalized homophobia.


 

“Come home?” Sergey whispered against Sasha’s lips.

 

Slowly, Sasha nodded.

 

* * *

 

They stood like that for what felt like an age, bodies pressed tightly, foreheads mashed together so hard their skulls started to ache. Noses slid, breaths ghosting across cheeks and lips as they traded slow kisses. Sergey tried to smile. Sasha chewed on his own lip, the corners of his mouth pulling downward.

 

“I have to go back to the Kremlin,” Sergey finally whispered. It was past time to go, and his driver was probably chain-smoking cigarettes as he waited, pacing outside the hotel. “Come with me. Please.”

 

He didn’t trust Sasha to follow behind him, or to come later. He’d said he would before, leaving the Arctic.

 

Never again. Sergey never wanted to feel that aching emptiness again, the bottom of his world falling away as he realized Sasha had left. Again. Part of him admonished his own foolish heart, called him an idiot fourteen different ways. Of course this would end with him alone. Of course Sasha would leave. He was only forestalling the inevitable. Sasha would always leave him.

 

Why start this agony again?

 

Sasha nuzzled his cheek, his hot breath brushing over his skin. “I need to pack,” he grunted. “Grab my things.”

 

I will follow you to your room and watch you, and then walk you to my limo. An irrational part of Sergey wanted to escort Sasha like a prisoner, capture him and keep him in the bonds of his love. Stay, stay, stay! Our love is enough!

 

“I will wait for you in the lobby,” he whispered.

 

Sasha nodded, his head jerking like he was a broken marionette. He took a shaking step backward, and then another, and another. He backed his way out of the ballroom, staring at Sergey the whole time, like he couldn’t bear to turn around, couldn’t bear to look away. Sergey stood frozen, watching him leave. Desperation clawed at his insides, screams and cries to chase him, to grab him, to not let him out of his sight. Panic sang just beneath his skin. Made his heart hammer.

 

He drifted to the lobby and perched on a velvet sofa, his fingers playing over the ruby folds, the gold painted arms. Sasha would return or he would not. And Sergey would have his answer. It would be easier if Sasha ran now, stabbed him in the heart (again) when he was still guarded and unsure. Hopeful, yes, but he hadn’t put all his chips on black just yet. Being with Sasha still felt like dream, a dream out of reach for forever.

 

The elevator doors dinged.

 

He inhaled, held his breath, and looked up.

 

Sasha stepped out, clutching a ratty duffel in one hand, his fist so white it looked like a ghost’s hand. All the blood had been squeezed out, and his arm trembled, his duffel shaking ever so slightly in his grasp. Over his other arm, he held his tux. His eyes were wide. Sergey could see a ring of white wrapping around his perfect blue irises.

 

He rose, joy, relief, and hope crashing inside him like waves breaking against cliffs. Sasha came back. This once, he came back. He smiled, his grin spreading wider and wider until he felt like his cheeks were going to fracture.

 

Sasha held out his tux awkwardly as he drew close. “I did not know what to do with this.”

 

“Keep it. You will need it again here, I am sure.”

 

Sasha nodded once, swallowed, and looked away.

 

Sergey held out his hand, beckoning Sasha with him to the front doors, and his waiting limo. His security team stood back, giving him and Sasha a bubble of privacy. Ilya had handpicked these men, replacing his former security agents, who had all died in Sochi, with the best of his men from the FSB. They bled the Russian flag and had fought for Sergey’s insurgency, or with Ilya. They had been willing to die for Sergey before.

 

Would their loyalty remain so steadfast if they discovered his love for Sasha?

 

Security agents saw all of the demons a president tried to hide. They knew where all the bodies were hidden, and exactly how many skeletons were in the closet. Would he have to hide his and Sasha’s love from his own shadows?

 

He shook his head, banishing his worries. Those were for another time. First, he and Sasha just had to get to the Kremlin together.

 

One thing, and then another.

 

Sasha walked behind him, slowly, his shoes scuffing against the marble foyer of the hotel. Sergey’s security agents pushed open the doors, and his driver stubbed out his cigarette before jogging around the side of the limo and holding open the door. Sergey stepped back, offering the first seat to Sasha. Would he slide in? Or would he freeze? Turn away?

 

Sasha’s jaw clenched, but he passed by Sergey, bundling his tux in his arms and hauling his duffel close. He clambered into the back of the limo and slid to the far side, pressing against the window. He held his tux in his lap, the fabric bunched and wrinkled, one jacket arm flopping onto the seat, a pant leg dragging in the footwell. He held it like a shield, like a protective cover, his arms wrapped over the fabric on his chest and stomach.

 

Hope, a treacherous thing, was building within Sergey, despite his admonitions. He got in the limo. That has to mean something.

 

Sergey slid in after Sasha and nodded to his driver. The door slammed shut.

 

Silence, save for the sound of their breathing. Sasha’s fast, heavy breaths through his nose. Sergey’s quiet, slow sigh.

 

The driver hopped into the front seat and mumbled into his radio. Bursts of Russian flew back as the car started, the engine rumbling.

 

Sergey settled his hands on the bench seat, gripping the edge. He reached halfway into the space between them, the no man’s land of darkness and smooth, black leather. His pinky stretched for Sasha, a few inches of skin that seemed to scream his desperation.

 

Nothing. Sasha stared out the window, clutching his tux.

 

Sergey looked away. Hope was like a roller coaster, or a fighter jet, screaming through the skies in a dogfight with reality. As high as he climbed, he rolled and started plummeting for the earth. He should gird himself now. Sasha was probably composing a stiff goodbye, an apology and an insistence that his way was the right way. Maybe, if he was lucky, Sasha would pretend he would keep in touch while he was training in Houston.

 

Something touched his pinky.

 

His eyes darted down. Sasha’s shaking hand grasped the bench seat, right beside his own. And Sasha’s pinky reached out, the tip just barely stroking down the side of Sergey’s little finger. The barest touch, a hidden touch.

 

He looked up. Sasha gazed at him, fear and agony twisting his expression apart. He was so afraid, so terrified. Was love such a horrible thing for him? I want what is best for you! Only what is best for you! Sasha had said. If you were attacked like I was… I could not live with that!

 

Sergey wrapped his fingers around Sasha’s pinky, an almost hand hold. Sasha gasped, a quick drag of breath through his nose. His eyes squeezed shut.

 

Sergey didn’t let go. Sasha didn’t pull away.

 

The limo bounced over the open gate to the Kremlin. Cobblestones hummed beneath the tires. The Kremlin Palace rose on the right, St. Basils far to the left. Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower rose above them, a harsh shadow slashing through the limo.

 

Sasha’s hand slipped from his and disappeared back into the wrinkled fabric of his tux.

 

They pulled to a stop at the private entrance. It was a slow day at the Kremlin. He’d planned the Heroes Ball for a Friday night and hoped that his people would enjoy the night, the celebration, and the weekend after. That they would let the pressures of the past month, the past year, even, bubble over and disperse.

 

No one was there to watch him and Sasha clamber out of the limo. His security agents stood back, and the limo driver looked away.

 

Still, they kept their distance from each other. Sasha walked behind him, ever deferential, even when Sergey insisted that he was equal in every way. But at least he was there, at least his footsteps shadowed Sergey’s all the way through the Kremlin Palace and up to Sergey’s apartment.

 

Their apartment, if he had his way. He’d start that argument later, though. No doubt Sasha would want to keep a separate apartment, keep up appearances that they weren’t together. Part of him knew that was smart. Another part of him was selfish and wanted Sasha by his side, constantly.

 

Sasha followed him into his apartment, silent and still. He still clutched his duffel and his tux, rumpled and wrinkled beyond salvation. His tailor would have a fit, and he’d get a snarky note back from the dry cleaner. Sergey smiled, imagining reading it to Sasha.

 

Would Sasha still be here in a week to hear it?

 

Enough. He had to be in this moment, not borrowing fears from the future.

 

Sergey guided Sasha through the apartment, past the dining room and the repaired gaudy golden dining table, and past the sitting room, where he and Ilya and Sasha had all spent so many nights together, drinking and laughing and arguing. He wanted those nights back, that warm happiness to return to his apartment. But Ilya said Sasha’s name like it was a curse, and Sasha hadn’t smiled for months.

 

Well. Except for that one time on the ice, after he’d tried to kill them both with his insanity in the plane and the ejection seat.

 

He saw Sasha’s gaze track the changes, the piles of destroyed paintings, the ripped-up carpet and hardwood, the patches of bare flooring. Broken glass panes in the curio cabinet. Broken crystals in the chandelier. New couches. “The Kremlin was mostly destroyed by Moroshkin’s men.” He stopped and pointed to the mantle over the fireplace. “That survived, though.”

 

The bust of Aleksander Pokryshkin, Sasha’s Air Force hero from World War II, sat in the center. He’d found it covered in dust and propping open a door, the heavy bronze worth no more to the invaders than as a doorstop. He still remembered Sasha’s quickly-stifled joy when he’d casually revealed it to him. Of course he’d brought it out of storage for Sasha. Even then, months and months ago, he’d been falling for this man.

 

Sasha gazed at the bust and then turned back to Sergey. His eyes burned, too many emotions tangling in his blue depths. His eyes were like the broken ice of the Arctic, the underbellies of icebergs that glinted turquoise and sapphire in the silent stillness of the waters. Places no one could ever see, not normally. Was he the only man alive who could see into Sasha’s soul?

 

“Come with me,” he muttered, holding out his hand. He touched Sasha’s elbow, guiding him to his bedroom.

 

Sasha had never been there before. He’d never taken him to the back of the apartment, to his private spaces. He’d never seen the old, ostentatious four-poster bed, a legacy from the days of old. Or the velvet curtains that had been shredded by Moroshkin’s men. Statelier, more refined furniture sat in place of all that had been destroyed. A simple king bed, and plain nightstands.

 

Sasha took it all in, his wide eyes moving around the room. His breath sped up.

 

Slowly, Sergey reached for his tux and his duffel. Sasha let go of both like he was a man condemned to die, and Sergey was taking away his last possession. Sighing, Sergey stepped back, dropping Sasha’s things on one of the only chairs to survive the carnage, a dark wingback wrapped in silk and satin.

 

“Do you need to go?” Sasha’s voice was low, his words clipped. His hands closed at his sides, making tight fists.

 

Sergey shook his head. “No. Today is a day that is just for you. I want to spend every moment with you, Sasha.” He swallowed. “What do you want?”

 

Sasha’s gaze met his, finally. “That,” he breathed. “You. I want you.” He looked away after he spoke, his jaw clenching and unclenching.

 

Finally, govno, finally, a sign, a signal, something from Sasha that said he wanted this, too. That he wasn’t meekly following Sergey because Sergey was his president. That he actually wanted this, wanted them, as well.

 

The burn started in his fingers, an ache to reach out to Sasha, touch him everywhere, hold him again. He’d brought him to his bedroom to talk, to sit and just be together, but… The thought of being with Sasha again, being close to him, was too strong. His nerves sang, his muscles clenched. His belly tightened, and heat spread from his balls, curling through his groin. His cock, which hadn’t stirred since Sasha had walked out, twitched.

 

“Sasha…” He reached for him, cupping his cheek. Sasha’s eyes closed, and he turned into Sergey’s touch.

 

His hands shook as he reached for Sasha’s sweater, and his fingers slid under the dark hemline. He didn’t wear a belt, and his pants hung low on his hips. His jutting hipbones fit perfectly into the hollows of Sergey’s palms. The skin on his back was cool, the blond hairs there rising to meet Sergey’s fingers as he grazed his touch along Sasha’s spine. Sasha shivered, and his head tipped back as he groaned.

 

His hands stayed fisted at his sides.

 

Slowly, Sergey peeled Sasha’s sweater off, his hands traveling up Sasha’s sides, over his ribs, pushing the dark fabric up. Sasha’s pale chest, his thick muscles, his freckled skin, already splotchy with a red flush, appeared.

 

It was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Sergey’s heart lurched, and his cock leaped, and his soul ached. He grabbed Sasha, hauled him close, wrapped his hands around Sasha’s narrow hips. His palms slid up, traveling over all of Sasha’s skin, the hollows of his back, his heaving chest, his shoulders, the defined muscles cording around his neck. Sasha was beautiful, was perfect, was so deliriously gorgeous. He wanted him, so badly. His cock strained against his pants, almost painful.

 

And yet, still, Sasha didn’t touch him. His hands were locked at his sides, trembling.

 

“Sasha,” he murmured, pressing kisses to Sasha’s lips, his cheek, his chin. “Why do you not touch me?”

 

Sasha groaned, a moan of anguish falling from his lips as he screwed up his face. Beneath Sergey’s touch, his body tightened, as if bracing. “Because I do not know how.” Sasha’s voice shook.

 

“What?” Sergey pulled back, frowning.

 

“I only know how to fuck,” Sasha spat. He scowled, shaking his head. “That is not what I want with you. I want—” He swallowed hard. “You deserve so much better.”

 

He didn’t know what to say to that. Instead, he blinked, staring at Sasha. There was so much he didn’t know about Sasha, about his past. How had he come to know he was gay? What shaped his life to make him hate himself so deeply? Russian society’s messages were pervasive, but Sasha’s self-hate had a deeper, more personal touch. And, what he’d confessed beneath the ice. He’d never been with someone he cared about. Had he never cared for anyone? Or had he been ruthless with his affections?

 

What strength of love was this, that Sasha was going against everything in his life, in his soul, and trying to build something with Sergey? Again, the fighter pilot driving his heart looped, screaming for the highest altitude. They could make this work, they could. He just had to show Sasha that everything was okay. That Sasha, as he was, was good. Was who Sergey wanted, who he loved.

 

“You are perfect for me, Sasha.” Sergey, reluctantly, let go of Sasha and reached for his own clothes. He shed his pullover quickly and started on the buttons of his shirt. Sasha’s eyes tracked his every move, his pupils darkening as Sergey’s fingers slipped each button free. “You are everything that I want. You, just you. Just as you are.”

 

Sasha’s lips thinned. “I want to be better for you.”

 

Sergey shrugged out of his shirt, shaking free of the sleeves until the fabric fluttered to the floor. Chest bare, he stood before Sasha, watching as Sasha’s jaw dropped and his chest rose, his breath coming faster. How on earth was he desirable to Sasha? Looking down at himself, at his sparse chest hair speckled across his thin chest, he spotted a strand or four of gray tucked among the blond and light brown sprigs. “Govno,” he breathed, smoothing his palm over his chest hair. “I should have removed all the evidence of my antiquity.”

 

“No,” Sasha moaned. “You are perfect.” His hands, finally, rose, reaching for Sergey. Trembling, they rested on his chest, his heavy, rough palms each resting over his pecs. His fingers tightened as if digging into Sergey’s skin, hard enough to bruise. And then relaxed. And again, like he was kneading Sergey, or like he was holding back from grabbing him and going wild. He panted, his mouth hanging open, eyes glazed, staring at Sergey.

 

The feel of Sasha over him, around him, dominating him on Honolulu slammed back into Sergey, like a visceral memory that lived in his bones. He shuddered and leaned into Sasha’s rough touch. Another time like that would be fine. Anything, anything to have Sasha’s love again. Yes to the roughness, to Sasha’s unbridled lust, his desire for Sergey unchained into a passion that dominated Sergey completely. Yes, he craved it, and Sasha, again.

 

“I am yours,” he whispered. “Anything, Sasha. Anything you want. I am all yours.” Everything, he’d give everything to Sasha. He’d bend over right then and there and welcome Sasha into his body. His knees were practically weak at the thought, at the imagining. He struggled not to moan. Please, God, would Sasha take him? He could practically already feel—

 

He thought his breathless plea would embolden Sasha, encourage him to capture Sergey like he’d done before. He’d thought—he’d hoped—that the passion Sasha kept so carefully concealed and controlled would burst free, and they’d be swept up in a torrent of desire, and when the waves finally receded, he’d shower Sasha in love and affirmation, assure him that Sasha was perfect just the way he was.

 

He didn’t expect Sasha to cringe, to flinch and step back. Look down as his shoulders slumped.

 

Sergey’s jaw dropped. He reached for Sasha, but his hand froze in midair, suspended between them.

 

“What I want is not right.” Sasha’s voice was a fragile thing, so unlike the bold man who stood before him. He shook his head, back and forth, fast, like he was scolding himself. “It is disgusting.”

 

“Sasha… No, it is not. Whatever it is, whatever you want, it is not disgusting. You are not disgusting. We are not disgusting!” He grabbed Sasha’s hands, squeezing them tight. Sasha’s hands were limp in his hold. “Sasha…”

 

He still wouldn’t look at him. He still stared at the floor, his shoulder’s curled like he was about to fall forward. “I am khuyesos,” he whispered.

 

He used the slang word for cock sucker, the insult, the slur thrown at any man to enrage him, to disparage him of his masculinity, his identity. In Russia, there was nothing worse than being a khuyesos, nothing worse than being a man who sucked another man’s cock, or took another man’s cock. A man like that, Russia said, was not even a man.

 

All Sasha’s life, everywhere he’d been, he’d heard those, and other, insults and degradations. Sergey had heard them too, but he’d been—foolishly—immune to their pain, thinking he wasn’t one of those men. He could brush off the hate since it wasn’t targeted at him. It didn’t hurt him, not then.

 

What a fucking fool he’d been. Every insult he’d ever heard, every word he’d ever ignored, was carved indelibly into Sasha’s soul.

 

And the agony from realizing that was enough to crush his heart.

 

Sergey grabbed Sasha’s cheeks and turned his face up from the floor. He sought his gaze, ducking down until he forced Sasha to stare back into his own eyes. “You are Sasha Andreyev,” he growled. “Hero of Russia. The man I love.” He shook Sasha, gently. “The man I desire. The man I want to make love to.”

 

Sasha shuddered, his entire body flinching as if he’d been shot.

 

“Tell me what you want, Sasha. I swear to you, it is not disgusting. You are not disgusting. You never are, and never will be.” He smoothed back Sasha’s hair, pressed a kiss to his forehead. “I want to bring you everything you desire. Everything you want. I want you to know that you, everything that you are, is loved. That I love you. Do you hear me, Sasha? I love you.”

 

Sasha gasped and tried to turn away, but Sergey held him, forced him to keep their gazes fixed, their stares joined. He saw it all parade through Sasha’s eyes: anguish, terror, rage, self-hatred, disbelief. Sorrow. Pain. So much pain.

 

Sasha’s lips trembled. “I want…” He struggled, fighting his own words, his face twisting as tears brimmed against his eyelashes. “I want… to suck you,” he finally breathed. He squeezed his eyes closed, and tears rained down his cheeks. Gasping, he licked his lips. “And…” He mumbled, forcing out the darkest Russian insult, the slang for a half-man who sucked another man’s ass. The slang was for convicts and ‘others’, men who weren’t true Russian men. “I love it,” he finally whispered, his voice shaking, his words breaking.

 

How deeply did Sasha’s self-hate go? It twisted around and around, until he hated his own desires, couldn’t even name what he craved. His entire life, he’d taken the messages of hate thrown about by their country and patched over the holes in his soul with the worst of those.

 

Sergey dragged him close, holding Sasha as Sasha folded around him, clinging to him like a drowning sailor as he sobbed. Had he ever spoken those words aloud? Had he ever even acknowledged his desires to himself? Maybe Sergey had pushed too hard. Govno, he had no idea how entrenched Sasha’s hatred truly was, how deeply the fractures in his soul went.

 

Sasha would never be alone again. Never. He would never face the world, and Russia’s, hate alone again, without Sergey beside him to remind Sasha that he was perfect just as he was. Exactly as he was. Together they’d untangle this knot of self-hate. He’d spend the rest of his days shooting down Sasha’s fears, wrenching apart the lies he’d been told. Banishing the insults, the slurs, the terror from his mind.

 

Slowly, he backed them both up until his legs hit the bed. Sergey sank down and brought Sasha with him. He laid them both out, facing each other on their sides, their foreheads touching, noses together, lips brushing. Sasha’s sobs had quieted, but his eyes were still closed. Sergey laced their hands together and waited.

 

“This is when everything changes,” Sasha finally whispered. “This is when the way you look at me changes. When you realize I am disgusting. When your eyes fill with loathing.”

 

There was a story there, hidden in those words. Something from Sasha’s past. Something that had taught him this lesson. When he was a child? Or after? When he was in the Air Force? Dark stories of abuse had always followed the Russian military. How had Sasha learned this near-frantic isolation, this protectionism that shoved the world as far from his as it could go? To space, even? He was afraid to learn the truth. He wasn’t strong enough to survive learning Sasha’s past. The realization settled deep in his sour stomach.

 

Sasha was so, so much stronger than he ever could be.

 

“My eyes will only ever hold love for you, zvezda moya. An eternity of love. And pride. You are my hero, Sasha. And you always will be.” He nosed Sasha’s cheek, willing him to open his eyes, to see the truth for himself.

 

Sasha shuddered, and trembles settled over his body. He gripped Sergey’s hands, squeezing until their fingers went white, their knuckles painfully pressed together. But, his eyes slipped open, loosing fresh tears over his cheeks, across his nose. Warm trails landed on Sergey’s skin.

 

He stared into Sasha’s gaze, pouring his love, his admiration, every moment of every yearn he’d ever had for Sasha, into his eyes. Every micron of love he felt, every ounce of longing, all the nights he’d tossed and turned, wishing for Sasha to be back at his side. All the dreams he’d had of them together. Every moment he closed his eyes and saw Sasha’s smile burned into the backs of his eyelids. He wanted Sasha to see all the way to his heart, all the way to the center, where the essence of Sasha hung, suspended like a dream in amber, the sound of his laugh, the light in his eyes. Everything that was Sasha—the strength, the soul, the passion—everything about the man he loved, living in the center of his own soul.

 

Sasha stared back, not breathing. And then, he sighed, exhaling like he was releasing something that couldn’t be named, something that had lived inside him for too many years. Something dark. Something that made Sergey’s skin crawl, and his spine shudder.

 

Keep breathing out, my love. We will expel it all together. He ran his hand through Sasha’s hair again, wiping away his tears with his thumb.

 

Sasha kissed his wrist, his lips wet and warm. Slowly, he rose over Sergey, his lips traveling over Sergey’s skin, mapping up his arms, across his collarbone, up his neck. He dropped a lingering kiss to Sergey as Sergey rolled to his back and his hands rose to Sasha’s shoulders. They stayed like that for minutes, maybe hours, kissing softly as Sergey’s hands tangled in Sasha’s hair and ran down the back of his neck, over his shoulders. Beneath his hands, Sasha shook, tremors that quaked his body.

 

And then, Sasha started to move.

 

Kisses to Sergey’s neck, his collarbone, again. To his chest, and right in the center of his splotchy chest hair, and over his traitorous strands of gray. Down, Sasha’s nose pressed into his skin, until Sasha hovered over his belly button and kissed his belly. Snaked his tongue into Sergey’s naval, flicking at the edges before nibbling on his skin.

 

Sasha’s hands worked open his belt, his pants. Trembling, they pushed Sergey’s pants down, and Sergey kicked them free before spreading his thighs wide. His cock rose, hardening again as Sasha stared down at him.

 

And then, Sasha looked up, holding Sergey’s gaze. A final look, a final question in his eyes. Will you still love me if I do this? Will you not think I am disgusting?

 

He hated, for a moment, their country, their countrymen, that had programmed this terror into Sasha’s soul. That had fed, ruthlessly, his self-hate, until Sasha couldn’t even trust their own love.

 

“I love you,” he breathed. His hand cradled Sasha’s cheek, cupped his jaw. “Sasha, I love you.” I will always love you. And you will never be disgusting. They are wrong, Sasha. They are all wrong.

 

Every kiss, every touch, every loving caress Sasha gifted him with, he would pour back into Sasha’s soul. He would share it all with Sasha, a hundred, a thousand times. Anything Sasha wanted, he would give. Anything.

 

Slowly, Sasha smiled. It was tiny, and it was only a curl of his lips on one side of his mouth, but it was there. A sign of Sasha’s happiness. His smiles were only ever true, never faked. Only ever pulled from his heart. And finally, he was smiling again. Sergey’s joy seemed to burst his own heart, and he gasped, beaming down at Sasha suddenly like he was a delirious fool, crazy in love with this one man.

 

He was.

 

Sasha nuzzled his cheek against Sergey’s thigh. His lips kissed Sergey’s skin, and goosebumps rose, every sparse strand of hair on his legs standing straight up. Sasha’s breath tickled his hip, the fold of skin joining his thigh and his crotch. Tickled the curls surrounding the base of his cock. Take what you want, Sasha. Take what you desire. I’m yours, I’m all yours. I love you, and I will always love you.

 

And then—


Timestamp: Immediately following Sergey & Sasha’s final scene in Enemy Within.

 

 

Hey Jealousy… Jack comes face to face with an ex of Ethan’s

 

Hello! Welcome to this week’s Bauer’s Bytes! This week’s prompt comes from Tina, who wanted to see Ethan’s past coming back, and some jealously on Jack’s part. This was supposed to be more lighthearted and fun, as I think Tina wanted, but it ended up being a bit deep on Jack’s part! This is set in Enemy of My Enemy, between Chapters 13 & 14, and before the Vinogradov sinking and before Sochi.

 

Happy reading!

 


 

A small part of Ethan’s mind had fretted and worried over this very thing—exactly this very thing—for months.

 

He’d had too long a life to not be worried about the possibility. Too many one night stands. Too much time lived as if he wasn’t going to find the one man, the love of his life, the person he wanted to spend forever with. And, hell, even if—very, very occasionally—he sometimes thought about it, thought about settling down with someone and sharing coffee in the morning and blowjobs at night, he never thought that whoever-he’d-love would be the Goddamn president of the United States.

 

Or that his love—and him—would end up being so in the spotlight. So well known. So open for anyone to take a pot shot at.

 

“Mr. First Gentleman.” The reporter, a younger guy, early thirties—several years older than when Ethan had seen him last—stood slowly, a smirk stretching his lips. “Good to see you again.” He winked.

 

Ethan’s stomach clenched, a fist closing in his belly. Images flashed, grainy and out of focus. Legs, hands, an arched neck. The reporter, in a very different time, a very different place.

 

He didn’t hear the rest of the question. The reporter’s words—he couldn’t even remember his name!—washed out in a sea of static, like he was speaking underwater. The rest of the press pool stared at Ethan like he was an animal in a zoo, a curiosity for them to look at every Friday.

 

Jack stood beside him, his body’s warmth burning against Ethan’s side through his jeans and his sport coat. Their Friday press briefs, so casual, so lighthearted, their way to be seen and be known together in the world…

 

And someone from his past, a forgettable one night stand, had just strode into their perfect world.

 

* * *

 

Jack watched Ethan from the corner of his eye. His lover had gone whip-cord taut as the reporter stood, Ethan’s eyes blown wide. He hadn’t breathed since the reporter had spoken, the younger man’s smooth voice rolling over his words. “Nice to see you again.”

 

His gaze flicked back to the reporter. His question was innocuous. Something about how was Ethan making the transition from law enforcement and the Secret Service to being the first gentleman.

 

Jack let his eyes roam over the reporter, taking him in as he stood on the aisle end of the back row of the press pool. Someone new. Someone brand new to the White House press pool, and who had no pull to get a better seat. Someone who wanted to be there, though. Someone who wanted to send a message.

 

The reporter was tall and lithe, smooth and polished in an urbane and sophisticated way that Jack could never pull off. He tried—he’d always tried to look refined and presentable. But the smooth sophistication the reporter oozed, with his perfectly coifed hair and his shapely eyebrows, his curved, sleek jaw, and his pouty, crimson lips, was something that had always eluded Jack.

 

And the reporter was young. Early thirties, maybe. Fifteen years Jack’s junior.

 

He knew Ethan liked them young. Ever since that damn article, the evisceration of Ethan’s character, he’d been uncomfortably aware that he was the oldest man Ethan had ever slept with. That Ethan’s choice in partners was usually significantly younger. Significantly more elegant. Significantly more experienced, too.

 

Expectancy hung in the press briefing room. The reporter had asked his puff question, but Ethan hadn’t responded. He was silent, still as a statue, staring at the reporter like he’d seen a ghost. Jack saw the wheels turning in the eyes of the rest of the press pool, reporters starting to put two and two together and coming up with the correct square root.

 

He wrapped his arm around Ethan’s waist. “Ethan is an amazing first gentleman. The state dinner he and his staff planned for President Puchkov was the best I have ever attended. He’s tackling the job—a huge job—with the same determination and perfection that characterized his career as a Secret Service agent.” Jack smiled, turning to Ethan. His own smile felt forced, as if he were pulling back his cheeks with string. “I couldn’t be prouder of Ethan.”

 

Ethan’s gaze—finally—snapped back to him, his eyes leaving the young, handsome, knock-out reporter and traveling over Jack’s face.

 

Was Ethan looking at his gray? His crow’s feet around his eyes? The line between his eyebrows, his frown line? Was he comparing them? Jack, middle aged, and the reporter, his young and pretty features, and the life he’d once had?

 

Pete strode onto the platform, smiling at the reporters. “Thanks everyone. The president and the first gentleman are very busy people and they have a full afternoon. Same time, same place next week! Have a great weekend!”

 

So even Pete could tell something was wrong. He was coming in for a rescue, distracting the press, giving them time to get away, regroup behind closed doors.

 

Jack needed a door or seven. He needed space away from people, away from everyone. Worry pitted his stomach, like Pac-Man eating at his intestines, climbing up his insides until it ate away at the back of his tight throat. He hadn’t felt this bad when the article was published. But then again, he hadn’t come face to face with one of Ethan’s former lovers. Words on a page were easier to shove aside.

 

Seeing Ethan’s hot young ex-lover was something totally different.

 

He escaped the press room as cameras flashed, as chairs creaked and squealed, and the hum of reporters chatting and tossing out last questions they hoped Pete or Jack or Ethan would answer broke the silence after Pete’s final statement. Ethan followed, trailing behind Jack close enough to touch, close enough that if he stopped, Ethan would run right into him, his body fitting to Jack’s back like he was supposed to, like they curled around each other in bed.

 

Their bodies were made for each other. He’d thought it for a while, since the first time they’d made out, bare chests sliding and Ethan’s fur tickling his smooth skin. The way his body had fit perfectly into Ethan’s. The way Ethan’s hips and his seemed to naturally align. The way Ethan’s arms cradled him, held him, like he had always been made for that space.

 

How many other gorgeous young men had laid there?

 

Stop. He had to stop. It wasn’t right, poring through Ethan’s past. Digging up his own insecurities and propping them like scarecrows in Ethan’s history. That wasn’t fair.

 

But the reporter was so young, and so much more good looking than Jack was.

 

Jack wound through the West Wing, his staff falling away from him as if they could tell he needed space. Hell, had everyone seen what had happened? Had everyone figured it out? Ethan was a solid weight behind him, silent, but pulsing with some kind of dark emotion. Anger? Frustration?

 

Regret?

 

They slipped into the Oval Office together, and Ethan brushed past Jack, striding to the center of the Oval Office before he stopped and tilted his head back. Shoulders tight, his chest heaving, breathing fast. Jack watched Ethan squeeze his eyes closed as he carefully shut the door, taking too much time to settle the heavy wood into the old frame.

 

“Jesus,” Ethan finally muttered. “Fuck.”

 

Jack stopped behind the striped couch, his fingers digging into two pale blue stripes. He stared at Ethan’s profile. “Old flame?”

 

Ethan winced. “Flame out. Years ago. Maybe six… seven?”

 

Jack swallowed slowly. Ethan did like them young and beautiful. The reporter looked like he was aging gracefully, perfectly, and in his early twenties—six or seven years ago—he’d probably had runway model good looks.

 

“I don’t really remember him. Don’t remember his name.”

 

Jack looked down. He didn’t want to ask what Ethan did remember. The reporter looked flexible. And, just saucy enough to wink at Ethan, the first gentleman of the United States, in front of Jack, the president, and Ethan’s boyfriend. He was probably stunning in bed. Forward and aggressive and willing to do anything and everything Ethan wanted. Not like Jack, who was still fumbling and learning, still trying to figure out the best way to love Ethan physically the same way he loved him in his heart and soul.

 

“I’m sorry.” Ethan’s voice was soft, his words grunted, grating. “I’m so sorry. I wish I’d never been like that—”

 

“No.” Jack shook his head. He looked up, and met Ethan’s gaze. “No, Ethan. You have nothing to apologize for. You were living your life. You have nothing to be ashamed of.” He knew that, in his head.

 

Sighing, Ethan shoved his hands in his suit pants. “But now it’s coming back, and it’s hurting you.”

 

Hurting his presidency, like the article had, or hurting him personally? Both, he supposed. How many reporters would run with what had happened in the press room, a juicy article for the papers, another scandalous slice of Ethan’s former life? It would be just like before, when the papers screamed that they were on the rocks, about to call it quits. Ethan had nothing to apologize for. Nothing. No one had any right to judge him, or his past. He’d been living his life happily before Jack had crashed into him.

 

But what if Ethan wanted what he’d had again? What if Ethan really wanted someone younger, someone more confident in bed, someone who knew what they were doing? Someone who looked like a model, someone who had the confidence to wink across a packed room and conjure memories of a sweaty one night stand?

 

Ethan’s next breath shook. “I feel like I’ve waited my whole life for you,” he said softly.

 

Jack’s heart contracted and froze, as if he was stuck mid-heartbeat. He held Ethan’s gaze as Ethan came toward him, sliding beside him behind the couch.

 

“Everything that happened before you is like a fog. Like I was searching for you, and kept turning over all the wrong rocks. But you’re the sun, and you burned that all away.” One of Ethan’s fingers reached out, barely stroking down the side of Jack’s hand.

 

He could barely speak. “I’m… so different from your past lovers, Ethan. Am I—” He bit his lip. “Am I what you really want? I’m not young. I’m not a model.”

 

“You’re perfect,” Ethan said quickly, his voice too-deep. “You’re absolutely perfect, Jack. You’re everything I want. Everything that I love.”

 

Jack felt his cheeks warm. “Yeah?” Insecurity wasn’t something he was used to feeling. He was the president, for God’s sake. He was the most powerful man on the planet.

 

But the thought of Ethan perhaps not wanting him made his confidence quake and shiver. Made his stomach turn to knots and his spine weaken. He’d rather face down a hundred of America’s toughest enemies in the Situation Room than confront the thought that Ethan might want someone else. Might move on and find someone new.

 

“Yeah.” Ethan bit his lip as his eyes smoldered, his cheeks darkening. “There’s no comparison,” he breathed. “You are the best. The best thing that’s ever happened in my life. The best president. The best man I’ve ever known. The best lover I’ve ever had.”

 

Jack snorted, but he turned to Ethan, sliding their fingers together on the back of the couch. “Go on.” He winked.

 

Ethan chuckled, and his flush deepened. “I have to be careful thinking about you during the day. Otherwise…” His eyes flicked down Jack’s body, taking all of him in. “You are so beautiful, Jack. So perfect. So Goddamn hot. You have no idea what you do to me.”

 

Jack smiled, and he tugged Ethan closer, grabbing his jacket lapel. Rough tweed rubbed under his fingertips. He’d watched Ethan dress in the locker room at Rowley, smiling at him in the bathroom mirror. Ethan had winked at him, and they’d kissed long enough for Jack to seriously consider skipping the press conference and locking the locker room doors, slip back to the showers with Ethan for another hour or five.

 

Ethan cupped Jack’s cheek. “I love you, Jack. You are everything.”

 

Jack covered Ethan’s hand with his own and nuzzled his palm. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t let that get to me.” He kissed Ethan’s wrist. “Jealousy isn’t attractive, I know.”

 

“I’m sorry I was stunned. I froze. I’ve forgotten there’s been anyone but you, really. It feels like we’ve been together forever.”

 

“That’s what prisoners say. That they’ve been there forever. That time goes slowly.”

 

Ethan laughed. “It’s like this, us, was meant to be.” His cheeks burst into maroon flares, dusky crimson darkening the tips of his ears. “At least for me,” he said quickly. “I mean—”

 

“Me too.” Jack tugged Ethan forward the last bit, closing the inches between them, and kissed him. Ethan’s hand rose, caressing his cheek, fingers sliding into his hair, palm cradling the back of his head. Their bodies pressed together, a perfect fit, and Jack grabbed Ethan’s hip, holding him close. The kiss stretched on and on and on, tongues and lips and breaths shared, their noses brushing against each other, cheeks rubbing. “Love you,” Jack whispered.

 

Ethan’s eyes burned, brilliant, glittering. “I love—”

 

Knocking on the Oval Office door made them freeze. Mrs. Martin, after walking in on Jack and Ethan the one time, had instituted a draconian knocking policy. Gone were the days when his top staffers could waltz into his office. Even Lawrence had to knock and wait for permission to enter.

 

Mr. President, the Joint Chiefs are here for the two o’clock brief.” The door muffled Mrs. Martin’s voice.

 

Stepping back from Ethan, Jack straightened, smoothing his hands over his button-down and adjusting himself. Ethan’s eyes were gleaming, his lips were kiss-red, and he had a softening erection stretching the front of his chinos. Jack brushed his fingers up the thick length, covered in khaki-colored fabric. Ethan shivered, curling against his touch. “Stay?” He wasn’t ready to be apart from Ethan. Not yet. He wanted to keep Ethan’s love near, ground himself in their love, their connectedness.

 

Ethan had sat in on enough meetings to be considered a regular. No one batted an eye anymore when he accompanied Jack into the Situation Room.

 

Ethan nodded and kissed Jack chastely before walking around and sitting in the corner of the couch. He adjusted himself, hiding away his body’s reaction to Jack and their kiss.

 

Jack called for the Joint Chiefs to enter, and the men all strode in, big and bold and full of vigor. He offered them seats at his couches and around his coffee table, and then sat beside Ethan. He rested one arm on the couch back behind Ethan and caught his lover’s gaze with a sidelong look.

 

Ethan rested his hand on Jack’s knee, the corner of his lip curling upward.

 

* * *

Later, Ethan finally slipped back to the East Wing to close down for the weekend, and Jack wandered through the Friday evening quiet of the West Wing.

 

He found Pete still in his office, hammering away at his keyboard, glaring at his computer monitor.

 

“Hey.”

 

Pete swiveled toward him, but his eyes stayed glued to the monitor until he had to whip his head around before his neck snapped. “Hey, Mr. President.” He stood, smiling tiredly and nodding at the same time. His shirt was loose, almost untucked, and his tie had been yanked away from his neck. Two buttons on his shirt were undone, gaping at his throat.

 

“About today—”

 

Pete interrupted him. They’d worked together long enough for Pete to have that privilege, though he rarely ever did. “You’ll never see him again, Mr. President. I revoked his White House press credentials.”

 

Jack stared down at the carpet. Would it matter if he ever saw the man, Ethan’s ex, again? He turned over the memory, called up the image of the reporter winking Ethan’s way again. Young, attractive, saucy.

 

Empty. Pretty, but touched with vanity. His memory was different now, overlaid with the confidence of his and Ethan’s love once again. That man didn’t deserve Ethan. He wasn’t the right guy for Ethan. Whatever had happened between them, it hadn’t meant anything. Ethan’s soul didn’t reach for that man, the reporter, like his soul reached for Jack.

 

And like Jack’s reached right back, tangling with Ethan’s in the spaces where they kissed and touched, where they smiled and held hands, where looks passed between them that said I love you a thousand times a million, and then another one.

 

Jack smiled at Pete. He shrugged, leaning one shoulder against the doorjamb as his hands went into his suit pants pockets. “He doesn’t mean anything. Ethan and I are stronger than that.”

 

Pete grinned back at him. He whistled low. “You guys are something else, you know that? I’d have lunged for the guy if he pulled that shit on a girl I loved.”

 

Laughing, Jack shook his head. “Then you’d have a whole new problem in the press!”

 

“It’d be defensible.” Pete shrugged.

 

“Lives are long. People live in them. Nothing from the past can shake us. Our future is what’s important, and that’s rock solid.”

 

Pete’s eyebrows rocketed up his forehead. “Should I be pulling together a press release about an engagement…” He winked, his lips spreading into a wide smile.

 

Jack laughed. He pushed off the doorframe. “Night, Pete. Get out of here. Go have some fun.”

 

“That wasn’t an answer!”

 

Jack winked back. He left, walking down the West Wing hallway as Pete’s laughter chased him all the way to the Cross Hall in the Residence.

 

A proposal. Marriage. Marrying Ethan.

 

His smile grew as he climbed the stairs, heading for the home he shared with Ethan. His boyfriend. One day, his husband? He’d loved being married, having that bond with Leslie, that till death do us part connection. Death had separated them, set him adrift. But he’d found love again.

 

He could marry again. He could be a husband again. United with Ethan for the rest of their days.

 

The thought filled him with something he couldn’t name, a feeling he couldn’t identify. Something warm and wonderful that felt like mornings waking in Ethan’s arms, and nights falling asleep in his hold. Of kisses shared over their coffee, and resting his head on Ethan’s shoulder when they sat on the couch together. Of their bodies moving as one.

 

Someday. Someday he’d bend his knee and ask Ethan. Someday when the world let them be, when Madigan was behind them, and when it was just the two of them, and together forever would become more than a promise.

 

It would become a vow.

 


Timestampe: EOME, between Chaps 13 & 14. Before Sochi.

Jack Trains at Rowley – Missing Scene from EOME

Welcome back to Bauer’s Bytes!

I hope everyone enjoyed Enemy Within’s release, and the wrap-up of The Executive Office series.

Today’s prompt has come from several readers. They have asked to see Jack and Ethan training together at Rowley, which was referenced in both Enemy of My Enemy and Enemy Within. This was originally going to be included in Enemy of My Enemy, but ended up being cut out.

Enjoy!


 

Ethan wiped the sweat from his face, and then grinned and swiped his towel down Jack’s face, too. Sputtering, Jack shoved at his shoulder, but he smiled.

 

Ethan finished packing their handguns into their cases and stowed both in the bottom of his duffel, and then threw that in the backseat of the presidential SUV. Scott had slipped another pistol to them for Jack when they were at Rowley.

 

Every Friday morning, he and Jack slipped out with Daniels and Scott to the Secret Service James J. Rowley Training Center. They got there early, when dew still clung to the grass and fog lingered around the edges of the firing range. He and Jack set themselves up at the private shooting range near the rear of the massive facility, practicing shooting for hours. Scott called out distance and groupings as he and Jack traded shots on the targets downrange.

 

Ethan had helped Jack with his posture, with his grip, and with his stance. Daniels watched and gave pointers as well, and over the past few weeks, Jack’s groupings had improved, becoming tighter. Jack beamed every time Ethan congratulated him on a well-placed shot.

 

“Put three in the center. Just like I showed you.” Ethan had breathed over Jack’s shoulder that morning, speaking softly into Jack’s ear. Jack’s blond hair had ruffled, shifting against his words. Ethan stared at the curve of the ballistic eyeshields wrapping around Jack’s face, and that tinted his cheek yellow.

 

Jack exhaled slowly and squeezed the trigger. One, two, three.

 

Scott called it out, watching through binos down the line. “Perfect grouping, Mr. President. Bulls-eye.”

 

Ethan had kissed Jack’s cheek, sloppy lips sliding on his skin as Jack twisted and met him half way. Jack held his gun in one hand—pointed down—and his other slid up Ethan’s neck and into his hair. Like this, Jack was beautiful, stunningly beautiful, and it made Ethan’s heart stop when he caught the morning sunlight reflecting off the plastic of Jack’s ballistic glasses, or tasted gunpowder on his lips as he kissed Jack. Breathed in the wet spring morning and Jack’s perfect scent, all as one.

 

Or feeling Jack in his arms as they sparred, working out on the dusty sparring grounds in the middle of a shady ring of Loblolly and shortleaf pines. Jack was a wiggler, and he could slip out of most holds Ethan got him into. He liked to flirt while sparring, too, darting in to kiss Ethan’s cheek. The first five times, Ethan had been stunned almost to freezing, and Jack managed a one-two combination—gently—that would have sent him to the ground.

 

Now, when Jack tried to sneak kisses, he wrapped Jack up tighter, swept his legs out from beneath him, and took them down—carefully—to the dirt. Jack was just learning how to scissor kick his way to freedom, moving beyond flailing his legs like he was riding an invisible bicycle. They scrabbled in the dirt as Scott and Daniels watched, ready with towels and bottles of water, and keeping silent when Jack busted into giggles.

 

Though, Scott had leaned over to Daniels that morning and whispered, just loud enough for Ethan to hear, “Watch the mating rituals of the Reichenbach, a wild creature, lawless and untamed.”

 

Ethan had twisted around, shock making his jaw drop. Jack had laughed out loud, throwing his head back, and then executed a perfect scissor kick, sending Ethan flying back, off of Jack and onto his ass in the dust.

 

They’d run their first simulation through the tactical shooting course that morning, too. Memories rose within him, warm summer days and him, over a decade younger and side by side with Scott. Taking his first run through the simulator, an empty lane of houses and shops and office buildings, a fake neighborhood from Anywhere, USA. Targets set up to look like hostiles and friendlies, and the snap-second decision to pull the trigger.

 

He and Jack ran through the simulator together, practicing how to move, how to shoot, how to run. Standing side by side, bracing before ducking in to clear a room, they’d shared a quick smile, and the light in Jack’s eyes was enough to make Ethan’s heart burst.

 

It was fantastic being back in action. Running, stacking, breaching. Moving with Jack, clearing rooms. Responding to threats, even just pretend ones. Rowley smelled like dust and gunpowder and scrub pine, but it was a familiar smell, and comforting.

 

Now it smelled like Jack, too, and that made it even better.

 

They kept to themselves at Rowley, staying well away from the other agents. Scott had set up a cordon, forbidding anyone else to join them. When the morning was over, they changed together in Rowley’s locker rooms, cleared out for the two of them, and dressed in nice jeans and tucked-in button downs with sport coats. Before heading back to the White House, they stopped at the cafeteria, grabbing an early lunch with Scott and Daniels.

 

Some of the agents steered well clear of Ethan, staring him down through their sunglasses and walking away when Jack and Ethan strode into the cafeteria. Everyone was respectful to Jack, of course. But there was always a heavy stare that seemed to burn into the center of Ethan’s shoulder blades. It felt like Iowa all over again. Not everyone loved the choices he’d made. He would always bear this, the recriminations of his former agents, his former colleagues.

 

And then, it was time to head back to the White House for their other new weekly tradition.

 

The drive back took thirty minutes by motorcade with the police clearing a route through traffic, and they arrived at the West Wing just in time for Jack’s weekly briefing with the White House press corps.

 

Pete, Gus, and Brandt had all agreed that his and Jack’s first step in trying to open up to the public about him and Ethan, and show the world how proud he truly was about their relationship, was to obliterate the curtain of silence that Jack had thrown around his personal life.

 

“You gotta be more personable. The White House looks like a secret society right now, and everyone wonders what kind of crazy sex games are going on in there.  I mean, your staff is crazy loyal. Freakin’ insanely loyal. But that’s also a mystery, because you’re not human to anyone in the public. You’re this mysterious other thing, something weird, and no one likes weird.” Gus hadn’t held his punches.

 

“People should see you for how dedicated you are.” Brandt had become one of Ethan’s biggest supporters, and Ethan still wasn’t quite sure how that had happened.

 

Pete said it best, though, stunning both him and Jack into silence. “You just have to be you. Both of you. Anyone who really knows you both loves you guys.” He shrugged, pursed his lips, and played with his pen.

 

Jack started briefing the press personally the week after Gus’s first meeting. He’d been nervous the first time, but after that, he took to the weekly meetings like a fish to water.

 

Jack waved to the press pool as he bounded into the briefing room. The reporters all stood, and more than half were smiling. Some clapped. Ethan hung back with Pete and Irwin at the side of the platform while Jack took to the podium. Scott and his men bracketed the room.

 

“Good afternoon! How is everyone this week?” Jack flashed that million-dollar smile, the smile that had locked up so many votes and had first made Ethan weak at the knees. “All right, hit me.”

 

The reporters chuckled, and then the questions began, flowing like a smooth conversation. The first week, everything had been more pointed, more critical, but Jack had kept to his smooth, unaffected delivery, and that had won over many of the reporters. And they, in turn, had won over a portion of the public. Jack’s approval numbers were rising steadily.

 

“Mr. President, Senator Allen has continued to attack you in the media for your controversial business bailout deal with Russia. He claims that you are more interested in growing Russian business than you are in American interests. How do you respond to that?”

 

“My interests lie with keeping the world safe and secure, and that includes economic security. Russia is enduring a period of intense change, and as her friend, we support her completely in this time. When their economy struggles, the world struggles. Getting the Russian economy moving again, getting Russians back to work, and helping our ally was the right thing to do, both from a moral perspective and from an economic perspective. Capital is being injected into the world, and it’s helping our American people every day. Stability has returned. People don’t have to worry.” Jack smiled. “I’d call that a win for everyone.”

 

“You’re not concerned about Senator Allen’s continued attacks against your close friendship with Russian President Puchkov?”

 

Jack laughed. “He’s got a phrase he likes, doesn’t he? ‘Political Boyfriends?’ I’m sorry to disappoint him, but I already have a partner.” Jack smiled at Ethan, holding his gaze for a moment.

 

The press pool laughed. Scattered clapping sparked up briefly.

 

“Mr. President, there has been an increasing number of terror attacks inside Russia. Bombs have gone off in shopping malls and restaurants. A shooter opened fire at a park. Protests at a gay pride parade turned violent. Some inside Russia blame President Puchkov for making his country a target of these terrorists with his new policies. General Moroshkin has been speaking out against the Kremlin, and there are increasing demands for President Puchkov to step down. The legislature in Russia has openly discussed calling for a vote of no confidence. What’s your take?”

 

Jack’s smile dimmed. “Our friends in Russia are experiencing the struggles and tragedies that come about when the forces of hate clash with the forces of equality and freedom. The Russian people deserve the freedom to live their lives unhindered by hatred, by corruption, and by totalitarianism, and President Puchkov understands this. Unfortunately, he—and all of us—are locked in a battle against forces who would choose hatred over equality and acceptance.”

 

“Mr. President, you’ve publicly thrown White House support behind controversial Democratic legislation. The Republican party is calling you a traitor and, quote, ‘a man attacking the very foundations of the party he purports to represent.’ How do you respond to that?”

 

“Supporting the Democrat’s legislation isn’t just a political issue. It’s a human issue, and one I’m proud to support. I made it my mission to advocate for the people, not to toe my party’s line. I’m proud to reach across the aisle to get important work accomplished.”

 

The briefing continued for a little while before transitioning into easy-going, softball questions. Ethan pushed off the wall and joined Jack on the platform with a smile.

 

“So, what are your plans this weekend, Mr. President?”

 

“Try and relax a bit. Catch up on a few things.” Jack’s arm wound around Ethan’s waist. “Ethan?”

 

“If the weather stays this nice, I think I’ll take you out. Grilling on the Truman Balcony?” He winked at Jack, and cameras flashed, a crazed frenzy of strobing bulbs.

 

“I’ve got myself a date.” Jack beamed at the press pool, his eyebrows high on his forehead.

 

“How are you two doing?” one reporter near the front called out.

 

“Doing great.” Jack kept smiling.

 

“The negative press doesn’t bother you?”

 

“The strength of our partnership isn’t shaken by tabloid trash or predatory journalism.”

 

“Mr. First Gentleman.” Another reporter, halfway back in the press pool, stood and spoke. “We don’t get a chance to talk to you very often. The job of the first lady—or the first gentleman—is a huge role. What’s been the best part about your new job?”

 

A silly question, but Ethan rolled with it. There really was only one answer, anyway. He smiled, turned to Jack, and answered. “That’s easy. Sharing my life with this man. Being with him every day. That’s the best part.”

 

Jack’s eyes turned meltingly soft as he smiled back. The press pool sighed and claps rose, and then rose again when Jack tilted his head against Ethan, resting their foreheads together. Bulbs flashed, the click and snap of a hundred cameras firing in sequence. Ethan pressed a quick kiss to Jack’s cheek, and then they straightened up and waved to the press. “Have a good weekend,” Jack called, striding away.

 

They filed out, slipping back to the West Wing proper. Pete and Brandt were both waiting for them, wide smiles on their faces. Pete channeled an Italian chef, kissing the tips of his fingers before spreading them into the air. “Perfect. Absolutely perfect.”

 

Jack shrugged. “We’re just being ourselves.”

 

“I know. That’s all you ever needed to do.”

 


 

Timestamp: Enemy of My Enemy, between Chapter 13 & 14

Enemy Within Sneak Peek!

 

Today’s Bauer’s Bytes is a special sneak peek at Enemy Within.

Join Agent Welby as he starts to unravel the subterfuge and deceit surrounding him, and starts to put the pieces together, along with the help of Pete Reyes, Jack’s press secretary. What do Welby and Pete uncover?

Who can Welby really trust, when everything is on the table?

Join Welby on the hunt for answers!

Enemy Within releases March 28th, 2017 at major ebook & print retailers everywhere.

 


 

Washington DC

 

Levi and President Wall ducked out of the Oval Office and headed down to the Situation Room, their heads together as they talked fast and low, as if sharing national secrets.

Welby stared them down, watching every single step. What was going on? What were they hiding?

Time to find out.

He ducked into the Oval Office, waving to the president’s secretary as he entered. He waved a manila folder as he pushed open the door. “Got to drop off a new brief.”

The president’s secretary didn’t even bat an eyelash. “Have a good day, Agent Welby,” she said, as he entered the silent, empty Oval Office.

He took a few steps in and swallowed. The power of the office still stopped him in his tracks, even now, years after he’d become a Secret Service agent. The fate of the world had been shaped within these curved walls, so many times over. For good or for ill, decisions had been made by men and women in this office that had impacted the lives of billions. He took a shaky breath.

What he was about to do was treasonous.

His stomach had burned a hole through itself, and he’d tied himself in knots, agonizing through the long hours of the day and night. They needed answers.

But he’d never crossed this line before.

Damn it, he needed to move, and fast. He was already on borrowed time.

Welby headed for the Resolute desk and started pulling out drawers. Nothing worthwhile in the top two. Notepads and folders, pens and sticky notes. A candy bar. A card, from Ethan to Jack, something sappy and silly at the same time. He put it back, carefully.

His thumbprint opened both of the locked lower drawers, and he held his breath when he tugged them open. Dozens of file folders. The president’s laptop. Top Secret briefs.

And, another laptop, resting on top of a burned briefcase.

He hauled the briefcase out and set it on the desk. It was a wreck, soot-covered, torn on one side, and water-damaged. The handle had been ripped off. Both locks were broken.

Perfect.

Inside, most of the papers were damaged, burned on the edges, or blackened with smoke and soot. Debris filled the inside of the case, gravel and dust. Blood stained one corner. The briefcase had sat in a pool of blood and soaked up enough of it to make Welby look away from the rust-drenched corner.

Lawrence Irwin had carried his briefcase with him into Langley, before the blast. Welby remembered that night. He remembered every moment of what happened, a picture-perfect clarity set in Imax quality in his mind. Waiting in the SUV, equal parts bored and on edge, wondering what was happening within Langley. Why had they taken Leslie Spiers into custody? Was she working with Madigan? What would they find during the interrogation?

And then, the blast. He and his team racing into the still-burning, still-collapsing building. Tearing through concrete and debris, searching for the president as fires roared and smoke billowed around them.

Pulling back blocks of concrete, adrenaline tearing through him faster than a Formula One racecar. Finding Irwin’s broken, bloody body. And then the president lying beneath him in a spreading pool of blood.

President Spiers had seemed so light, so fragile, when he scraped him off the ground. Floppy like a doll in his arms. Limp, too limp. He carried him over the shattered remains of the CIA’s headquarters as helicopters and rescue workers and firetrucks arrived, sirens blaring, lights flashing. People shrieked, crying for help.

He carried the president’s broken body, staring down into his pale, empty face.

Assassinated.

The word hung like cobwebs in his mind, like a whirlpool that sucked down all other thoughts. It had been him on duty, him that night. He had let his president be attacked. Assassinated. He had let the nation down. He had let the president down. And, he had let Ethan down.

Or had he?

Desperation redoubled his efforts, and he clenched his jaw as he rifled through Irwin’s briefcase. Where would Irwin have sent Ethan to search for proof of Leslie Spiers’s betrayal? Out of the whole world, where would he have gone?

One folder caught his eye. Bright red Top Secret borders lined the edges, and a giant seal warned him away from the contents. “Operation: Vigilant Fury” was the codename.

He snorted. Vigilant was President Spiers’s Secret Service codename. What could be better for a Top Secret operation to hunt down Madigan? The government did not have the best sense of humor, but they excelled in irony.

He flipped the file open.

Photos, dozens of them, from prison breaks around the world. Satellite imagery over South America, the Maghrib, and Somalia. Dossiers from a dozen military officers, one from a man named Noah Williams, supposedly dead sixteen years prior. Welby’s eyes narrowed. Leslie Spiers was supposed to be dead, too. He knew how that had played out.

Intelligence reports. Memos and intelligence analysis and mission briefs from a Marine Corps strike team sent to Ethan. Pages and pages of reports, each one detailing more of the teams’ actions and missions.

Ethan must have run the strike team, secretly. In addition to being Jack’s first gentleman, he must have been running a black strike team, working hand in hand with Irwin. No wonder Irwin turned to him. They were already hunting Madigan together.

And, the Marines. Were they the missing piece he needed? They must be whom Ethan turned to when he needed to follow Leslie Spiers’s tracks.

Who were they?

Welby dug deeper. The mission briefs had been signed by an “AC, LT1”.

Not good enough. He needed a name.

Finally, at the bottom of the file, he struck gold. A sheet of paper, torn from a notepad, with scribbles of Irwin’s that he should have thrown away months ago. “LT Adam Cooper, SOCOM. General Bell, Commanding Officer. Possible team lead. Check background. Current disciplinary action? Investigate connection to F.”

He had a name. A place to start searching. Finally.

Welby put everything back into the briefcase, exactly as he found it, and slid it back into the bottom drawer.

He took the Operation Vigilant Fury folder with him, hidden inside the manila envelope. He clenched the paper with Lieutenant Adam Cooper’s name on it, tight enough that his hand shook.

One step closer to the truth.

 


 

Except, Lieutenant Adam Cooper was a ghost.

Welby slammed down the phone in Pete’s office and groaned. Across the desk, Pete stared at him, his wide eyes almost bulging from his skull. “Nothing? Again?”

“Not a damn thing,” Welby growled. “Irwin and the CIA must have scrubbed him from the system when they brought him on board. His record is a shell. I can’t get any working information for him. No current posting. No current duty assignment. Nothing.”

“What about this?” Pete spun the scrap of paper and jabbed his finger in the middle. “His commanding officer was General Bell at SOCOM. Can you get in touch with him?”

“I tried. The general is ‘unavailable’. And his secretary has no idea who any Lieutenant Adam Cooper is. Never heard of him. Which is bullshit, because if he was in disciplinary trouble, then his secretary would have run the paperwork. She has to have heard of him.”

Pete sighed and threw himself back in his chair. He ran his hands through his hair and laced his fingers behind his head. “You searched all the military databases, right?”

Welby nodded.

Pete gnawed on his lip, staring at Welby. “I’ve got a person,” he finally said slowly. “It’s not, you know, entirely legal. But I’ve used them in the past to track down sources. People I need to find when they’ve gone to ground. If I need them for a story, or if I need them to shut their mouth.”

Welby’s eyebrows skyrocketed.

“You think being press secretary is just throwing press junkets all the time?” Pete scoffed. “This is one of the dirtier offices in the West Wing. And I’ve never been afraid of getting into the mud.” He swallowed. “Not for Jack.”

“I don’t need to hear any more.” Standing, Welby smoothed his tie and headed for the door. “I’d hate to have to arrest you because of something I overhear.” Never mind the treason he just committed himself.

He turned the doorknob. “But, I expect you’ll let me know?”

 


 

His cellphone buzzed a few hours later. Welby glanced down at the screen. A text from Pete had popped up. Get here asap.

Welby pocketed his cell phone and turned back to the shift brief. Levi was talking through the elevated threat assessments, and what they all needed to watch out for. Tasking agents rotating off shift with intel work in Horsepower. Reassigning other agents, and moving their posts around. Changing the West Wing procedures. It was a big shake-up, and Welby couldn’t see the reason why. Why move agents? Why have them hunting for intelligence? That was H Street’s job, for the intel desk jockeys at Headquarters.

He escaped as soon as the brief ended, slipping out the back. On the way out, he saw the confusion on the other agents’ faces, too. What was up with Levi? Why these changes?

Unease slid down his spine, drumming along each one of his vertebrae with a deeper, darker worry.

He pushed his gnawing anxieties away as he slipped into Pete’s office. Pete stood at his desk, his back to the door, on the phone. As Welby entered, he waved him in, thanked whoever he was talking to, and hung up.

“What did you get?” Welby crossed his arms and hovered in front of Pete’s desk.

“A few things.” Pete pulled his keyboard close and started pounding at the keys. “Okay, first, my guy looked up Adam Cooper. Turns out, he’s been using his civilian ID to move around. Him and a bunch of other MAMs flying on the same route.”

“Military age males?” Welby frowned. “That’s not unusual. That’s anyone from fifteen to sixty-five. About half the population of airline travel is in that range.”

“Not on this route.” Pete spun his monitor toward Welby. A flight route lit up, one red line bouncing from Riyadh to London, London to Seattle, Seattle to Anchorage, Anchorage to Nome, in the far reaches of western Alaska, and then to Sevoukuk, a tiny village on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. “Only eight men flew this itinerary, and all together, all on the same day. Adam Cooper, six other American men, all in the Marine Corps, and one Saudi national.”

“A Saudi?”

“Faisal al-Saud. His passport was flagged in Seattle. Someone came forward and said al-Saud and he were getting married in the States, and the immigration officer let them through.”

“Who the hell is Faisal al-Saud? Why is he connected to Lieutenant Cooper?” Welby’s brow furrowed, and he stared at the red lines on the monitor as if he could read the lieutenant’s intentions in each hop.

“Dunno.” Pete shrugged. “I looked up what I could. He’s an orphan. His parents were killed in those big bombings the Kingdom had twenty years ago. His uncle adopted him, raised him. He’s a quiet prince in the royal family. The only thing that stands out is that he’s reported to be the royal head of the Saudi Intelligence Directorate.”

“Shit…” Welby cursed, and he leaned forward, bracing his palms on the edge of Pete’s desk. “Is that good news or bad news for us? These flights originated from Riyadh. What the hell was Lieutenant Cooper doing in Saudi Arabia anyway?”

Pete shrugged again. “The only thing we know for sure is that Lieutenant Adam Cooper landed on St. Lawrence Island yesterday. And Ethan wasn’t with him.”

“Did you track Ethan’s passport? Find out where he was?”

“No.” Pete shook his head. “He must have been using a burner. Irwin could have gotten him one from the CIA. Ethan’s most recent passport scan was his last official trip with the Secret Service. Ethiopia.”

A shiver crawled up the back of Welby’s neck, ringing his throat until his scar burned. Ethiopia. He remembered gasping for breath as his throat filled with blood. Hands holding him down on the conference table in Air Force One as the surgeon leaned over him, shouting at him to keep still. He swore, one of those hands had belonged to Jeff Gottschalk. He’d held Jeff’s hand, clenched so hard he thought he broke it. He thought he was going to die on that table, bleed out at thirty thousand feet, all over the seal of the United States. 

He took a breath, but Pete jumped in, speaking first. “So. Lieutenant Cooper is in Alaska. Hanging out in the Bering Sea. Moroshkin is invading Canada. You think he’s making a move against Moroshkin?”

“He’s headed the wrong way for that. He’s thirty miles off the coast of Russia. Canada is a long way from Lieutenant Cooper right now. No, he’s pointed at Russia.”

A light went on in Pete’s eyes, an almost mad gleam. He spun his monitor back around as he pounded at his keyboard again. “Take a look at this.” He spun the monitor back.

A gaudy, flashing webpage blinked back at Welby, a mess of translation protocols converting Russian web text to broken English. “Looks like… a message board?”

“Yes. A Russian conspiracy theorists’ website. They run a message board and yak about all the same things our conspiracy nuts do. Aliens. Government cover-ups. Secret military installations. HAARP. Chemtrails. All of it.”

Welby stared at Pete. “Why do we care what Russian nuts are talking about on some badly managed website?”

Pete held up one finger and then pounded away at his keyboard again. A new page came up, a thread of messages. He scrolled to the second message. Pictures filled the thread, groups of hard-looking Russians swarming around a convoy of rugged jeeps that had seen far better days. Some of the men wore full-face black balaclavas. Everybody carried automatic rifles.

“This group of men was seen moving across Russia. First in the west by Volga, and then they reappeared on the east coast, north of Vladivostok. There are unconfirmed reports of sightings in Siberia.”

“Looks like a gang of Russian thugs.” Had Pete really lost it? Had he chased a rabbit down a crazy hole? Maybe Levi was right, and Pete really did need time off. Hell, maybe he did, too.

“Look closer.” Pete pushed the monitor across the desk and started slowly scrolling through the thread. Picture after picture came up and passed, scene after scene of dark-clad Russians clutching weapons and riding in jeeps.

And then—

“Wait!” Welby’s hand shot up.

There, striding alongside a balaclava-wearing man, his face turned to the side and cast in half shadows, was Ethan.

“You see it too?” Pete breathed. “Tell me I’m not crazy.”

Welby shook his head, back and forth. “It can’t be him.” The denial was automatic, a knee-jerk gut-check. “There are thousands of people who look alike. This must just be an uncanny double. It’s not him.”

Pete scrolled again. A new picture, Ethan turning toward the camera this time, and calling to someone behind him.

Welby hissed. He reached behind him and pulled one of Pete’s chairs close, collapsing to his ass when his knees buckled.

“I thought the same thing when I saw them,” Pete said softly. He sat on the side of his desk, one leg dangling. “It couldn’t be him, I thought. No way. Why would he be in Russia? With some kind of gang? But…” Pete swallowed. “If Lieutenant Cooper is in Alaska, hanging out on an island within spitting distance of Russia, and Ethan might be on the east coast of Russia… I mean, it can’t be a coincidence, right?” He trailed off. “C’mon, man. Tell me I’m not losing it.”

“It’s him.” Welby clasped his hands together and fisted them in front of his mouth, covering his lips. “It’s him,” he repeated. “And I know who the guy next to him is, too.”

Twelve years he’d served at Ethan’s side, from the day Ethan graduated the Secret Service Academy at Rowley until his transfer to Iowa. Welby had been an agent one year longer, but he’d still been a newbie when Ethan had joined the DC field office, and then the White House. Twelve years of operations together. Twelve years of moving with Ethan, watching him on the protective detail. Watching him with his protectees, how he moved with them.

And then, seeing how different he was with President Spiers. Ethan had always been a consummate professional, a man of clean lines and exacting standards. He’d rocketed up the ranks of the Secret Service because of his discipline, his no-nonsense behavior, his determination and dedication to the service. Professional at all times, even with the most difficult assignments, the most pain-in-the-ass protectees.

Until President Spiers. Until he and Jack came together like sparks catching flame.

With him, Ethan had made protections personal. Welby had seen it, even before the truth came out. Ethan had become compromised. He cared about Spiers. He stood too close. Kept the president in his body space, inside his shadow. Moved his own body in tandem with the president, like they were connected. Like they were a team, a unit, a pair. He’d protected Spiers like he was protecting the most precious thing in the world, and after, when everything came out, Welby realized that had been exactly what Ethan had been doing.

The man in the pictures, striding alongside the man in a black balaclava, moved the same way.

Twelve years he’d been at Ethan’s side, and he could pick out Ethan’s style of protection in an instant. He could see the way Ethan breathed and moved with the man in black, reacted to him almost before the man in black even made a move. A matched set, a unified team. A partnership closer than any he’d ever seen.

“It’s President Spiers,” Welby breathed. “The president is alive.”

 


Timestamp: An excerpt from Enemy Within, as Agent Welby attempts to put the pieces together…