Cross Cultural Communications – Part Two

 

“You must be Gul Bahar.” General Khan chuckled. “I see why the name stuck.” He spoke in Dari. Fazl, Khan’s translator, hung by his shoulder. “If you wore a turban, you’d be a beautiful Afghan boy.”

George coughed, glancing sidelong at Kris. He knew just enough Farsi, the Iranian version of Dari, to parse out what Khan had said.

Kris smiled. “As-salaam-alaikum, General Khan.” He pulled off his gloves and held out his hand, delicately. “Chutoor haste?”

Khan took his hand, placing his own free hand over his heart. “Wa alaikum as-salaam, tashakor fazle khoda ast.” Thanks to God, I am good.

Kris pressed his hand over his heart with a smile, then cupped Khan’s hands in both of his.

“It has been some time since I was here,” Khan continued in Dari. He looked over Kris and George’s heads, to their headquarters. “This was where I last saw General Massoud. We dined together, in his house.” He pointed to the building they now lived in.

“General Khan… We thank you for your honor. To stay in the General’s home.” Kris smiled, his breath shaky. “You honor us too much.”

General Khan’s eyes narrowed. One corner of his mouth curled up, an almost smile. “We will see if the honor is worth it.”

On the other side of George, Ryan cleared his throat. He didn’t speak a lick of Dari. He had no idea what was going on. His impatience was showing.

“General, may I introduce you to agha George and agha Ryan?” Kris used the deferential title to delineate the authority of George and Ryan over him. “We are CIA officers, here to help the Shura Nazar.”

George held out his gloved hand and pumped Khan’s once. Ryan followed suit with a firm handshake. Khan frowned. He stepped back.

 

On the CIA’s insertion into Afghanistan, Kris becomes both the linguist and the cultural expert for the team. He translates not only the Dari, Farsi, Pashto, and Arabic that the team encounters throughout all of Afghanistan, but also guides the team to understand Afghanistan’s culture, too.

 

Or, he tries to.

 

“This isn’t a machismo culture!” Kris roared. He’d never shouted this loudly, never bellowed like this. Not at his drunkest, not even when he was thrown out of beds in college or dumped by the older men he’d slept with on weekends and ditched on Monday mornings. Never, ever had he been filled with this much rage, this much sizzling-hot blood. “In Muslim cultures where there is a strict division of the sexes, men form close emotional bonds with other men. They aren’t concerned with posturing or proving who has the bigger dick in a perpetual ‘who is the bigger asshole’ contest! Yes, men here hold hands! Yes, men here hug! Being physical is a sign of trust!”

 

Olga Kolos/Alamy

 

The CIA team that enters Afghanistan is made up of the biggest, baddest special operator legends in CIA history.

As Kris puts it:

 

Kris glanced left and right. He and about twenty others had been pulled by Williams into a side room off the basement-level bunker. Everyone around him was huge. Huge physically, hulking muscles and ripped bodies. Huge in reputation. Career officers of the CIA, men who had their names etched in iron, who had stopped more terror attacks than years Kris had been alive. They were legends in the CIA, officers used as training examples at The Farm. Men who didn’t breathe oxygen, who didn’t pump blood through their bodies. They were made of far sterner stuff, iron patriotism and pure American grit. It was like looking at one of the world’s first astronauts. Who were these men who did these things? How did humans accomplish these feats?

And then there was him.

 

These men have been conditioned to act. To get shit done, as fast as possible. They’re used to American time, brutal American efficiency, and American directness.

The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily operate that way, though.

Afghanistan is a solidly Muslim country, as Muslim as Saudi Arabia or any of the Gulf countries. Muslim traditions mix and bled with tribal traditions, known as Pashtunwali, an ancient code of ethics that has survived for over two millennia. Afghans broadly feel a stronger sense of loyalty to their tribe, kin, or ethnicity before loyalty to a larger state, largely because of the series of failed, overthrown, toppled, or repressive governments that have largely underserved the Afghan people for decades. Loyalty to blood kin and ethnicity reveals the deep tribalism and collectivistic attitudes of the Afghan people.

As a tribal, collectivistic, closely-knit society, Afghanistan operates on a set of behavioral codes that oftentimes run in direct opposition to American standards of behavior.

Most Afghans consider a person’s behavior to be a reflection of their tribal affiliation. This effects perceived honor in both directions. If the tribe is considered dishonorable, every member of that tribe is likewise considered dishonorable. In Whisper, the CIA struggles against the Afghans perception of America, and the United States’ twisted foreign policy, which has given them, as Americans, a deeply dishonorable reputation. Kris, knowing this, works hard to show considerable respect in order to rebuild their collective reputations and honor.

Greetings, in Afghanistan, are ritualized. Handshakes are warm and linger, while each party holds their hand over their heart to show their respect and honor for the other person. If someone want to show extreme respect and deferment to the other, they will hold both hands over their heart. Wearing gloves while shaking hands is considered incredibly rude. Skin to skin contact is preferred. As two people grow closer, and the respect deepens, kisses are often added to the cheeks. Kisses to the hands denote extreme respect and fondness.

Courtesy, DOD

General Khan waited at the steps. He beamed when he spotted Kris through the filthy passenger window.

“Gul Bahar!” Laughing, Khan held both his hands open as Kris climbed out of the truck, shaking his limbs loose and trying to reseat joints banged up and bruised from the brutal drive. “I am pleased you are here.” Khan hugged him tight and kissed both of his cheeks. He held one hand over his heart.

Haddad waited behind Kris. “David Haddad,” he said simply, holding out his ungloved hands. He clasped Khan’s hand in both of his as they shook, bowing slightly. “Thank you for your hospitality, General.”

Khan’s chest swelled. His smile grew. “Come, come, we will share tea,” he said in his stilted English. He beckoned them both into the compound.

 

 

Greetings extend beyond the formalities of a simple handshake and hello. Much time is spent lingering over tea and a meal, inquiring about each other’s health and their happiness.

 

“General, we have much to discuss.” As George spoke, Fazl translated the English to Dari for Khan. Kris listened. “We need to coordinate with the Shura Nazar and prepare the battlefield for the US’s invasion—”

“First, we will eat.” Khan spread his hands to the feast Ghasi had laid out on the sheet in the yard. Boiled meat, dates, almonds, fresh yogurt, sliced tomatoes, fresh-baked flatbread, and watermelon. “Come. We will eat together.”

Kris heard George’s teeth grind, but they followed Khan to the blanket and crouched down, sitting on the faded, lumpy cushions. Khan invited his men to join them. He was relaxed, jovial on the surface, but Kris watched him watching George and Ryan with an intensity that rivaled a hawk’s.

 

 

It is considered the height of impoliteness to rush through these social rituals, and an insult to the hosting party. Giving such an insult bring incredible dishonor upon an individual, and again, on their tribe.

 

Kris followed Khan, winding through corridors and up narrow staircases until they arrived at the top floor, General Khan’s private office and quarters. The room provided a panoramic view of the Shomali Plain, the former breadbasket of Afghanistan. Once, it had been a lush garden, fruit orchards and farmers’ fields from the eastern slopes of the Hindu Kush to the desert edges of western Afghanistan, all the way to the gates of Kabul.

Now, armies ringed both sides of the Plain, Taliban and Shura Nazar. Decades of war had ravaged the land, turning the fields to desolate wastes, as pitted and pocked as the moon, and just as welcoming. Only the dead lived in the Plain now.

Khan called for tea and bread to be brought out. Young soldiers, no more than boys, scurried in, balancing trays of tea with chipped Russian glasses and plates of hot, fresh-baked bread. Apples and dates followed, and fresh yogurt. Kris could smell the milk, the tart skin of the apples.

Khan sat beside him, right next to him, on floor cushions before the window. Haddad settled down a respectful distance away.

They spoke gently, chatting back and forth over tea for almost an hour. Khan wanted to know how Kris liked Afghanistan and the Panjshir, the valley Khan had called home for over forty years. He could name every tree, every creek, every fruit that grew. He knew the horse and camel tracks like he knew the twists of veins on the backs of his hands. The land was in his soul, and his bones were made of Afghanistan’s dust, his blood her waters.

Kris spoke honestly, telling Khan he thought the country was breathtaking, the land beautiful, but scarred by conflict and brutality. Haunted by sadness. Khan agreed, and their conversation shifted to what his people needed, and the supplies Kris had brought. Khan grasped his hand and held on, their hands resting on Khan’s knee. The entire time, Haddad sat silently nearby, sipping his tea and calmly watching their back-and-forth in Dari.

Finally, Khan shifted to the business of why Kris was down on the front lines. Had George been there, Kris thought, he’d have crawled out of his skin long before, stepping all over Khan’s friendship and relationship-building in his quest to get things done immediately and ferociously.

 

Personal space is non-existent. Afghans generally have a much smaller personal space bubble than Westerners, and will often hold hands, walk hand-in-hand, sit right beside their friends of the same gender, or otherwise seek physical, platonic contact from their same-gendered friends.

Physical contact between members of the opposite gender is highly regulated and restricted to family members or married couples.

Kris has his work cut out for him, trying to convince the members of his team to be as culturally sensitive as they need to be in order to help the mission along. American honor, in Whisper, is tied directly to the actions of six CIA officers.

 

“More American duplicity! Lies!” Khan cursed, but the fight seemed to go out of him. He sagged, sighing as he shook his head. “I put my trust in you Americans time and time again. Always, the same outcome. You never keep your word. Never.”

“No, not always. We’re friends.” George scrambled, reaching for Khan’s hand. Khan didn’t accept. He stayed still, a silent statue. “We brought food. The aid drop, it went great. We can bring more. I’ll schedule more food, more supplies for your people. We are friends, General.”

Khan stared him down. “You will do that, and you will destroy the Taliban like you said you would. Or you will leave my country.”

It’s not just the Afghans and General Khan who notice Kris’s cultural sensitivity, though.

 

David watched the meeting from the compound’s entrance, manning the point position on the team. Palmer had spread out everyone, encircling Khan’s party and the CIA team, creating a security bubble for their people. Everyone on David’s team had their weapons in hand, fingers curled around the triggers. One wrong move, one hint of subterfuge, or an attack—

His gaze kept dragging to Kris, no matter how he tried to look away. Kris, speaking fluent Dari and connecting with Khan in all the right ways, as courteous and respectful as the suavest socialite in Benghazi or Beirut or Cairo. He knew the rhythms of the people, that was obvious. He knew how to move and breathe with Islam, how to live in the religion in a way that David only barely remembered. Kris had spoken Arabic to David like it sounded in David’s dreams, his earliest memories. David had thought he’d covered his accent, had made it purposefully bland, purposefully Gulf with faint hints of Egyptian. He’d thought wrong, if Kris could uncover him so completely from their first hello.

But that was just one more thing to bury.

Sixteen hours, they’d been in Afghanistan. He’d kept his mind occupied from the moment they’d entered Afghan airspace. Running through the mission, over and over. What would happen when they landed, who would take the lead. Palmer’s orders, his mission plan. Their contingencies. Their contingencies’ contingencies.

Kris.

 

Tomorrow we’ll delve deeper into David, and into his faith, as we get ready for Whisper’s launch on Thursday, April 26!

 

Questions:

Have you ever been in a situation where it felt like you were talking past someone, and you didn’t know how or why?

Have you ever felt like a fish out of water, culturally lose? Have you ever experienced culture shock?

What are some defining  attributes of your own culture?


 

Writing Recent History – Part One

 

Historical Fiction.

 

What do you think of when you picture that genre? Far-away times? Distant generations? Events where there couldn’t possibly be an emotional connection to you at all, other than the intrigue of a historian?

 

What does it mean to write recent history?

 

Contemporary fiction is defined, as a genre, as anything written from the 1950s forward. To me, that seems a bit broad. I would personally look at a novel from the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s and feel it was historical, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t alive during those decades.

 

But what about writing recent history? Things that have happened that we ALL remember? Pivot points in history upon which our memories, our identities, and our entire worlds seem to turn?

 

In Whisper, Kris and David (and other associated characters), live and breathe within the world of our recent past. The novel opens on the morning of September 11, 2001, at 8:46 AM, when American Airlines Flight 11 slams into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, New York.

 

American Airlines Flight 11 strikes the North Tower of the WTC at 8:46AM on September 11, 2001  Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7949013

Kris is in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, CTC, when the attack happens. He’s a junior CIA officer, two years into his role, and has been relegated to the dregs of the agency—the Afghanistan desk.

 

For the first part of the novel, we follow Kris and the CIA as they leap into high gear and struggle to respond to the attacks. Who, why, how are questions that must be answered. Kris is instrumental in identifying al-Qaeda as the culprits behind the attack.

 

This launches the CIA into preparation for an all-out war against al-Qaeda, and their state sponsors, the Taliban, in Afghanistan. In 2001, the US military could not mobilize fast enough for an invasion of Afghanistan. The president called on the CIA to go in first, within two weeks of the attacks, while the ruins still smoldered in New York and in DC, and to begin laying the ground work for the invasion.

 

Kris struggles with certain truths through the workup to the invasion and once on the ground in Afghanistan. He’s facing a war on three fronts. His teammates don’t care for him, he’s fighting against his self-castigating conscience for choices he could have made differently, and there’s an actual war he’s suddenly in the middle of, thrust into the crux of history by a twist of fate: he, in being relegated to the sidelines on the Afghanistan desk, becomes a singularly indispensable person following September 11, 2001.

 

While writing the CIA’s invasion of Afghanistan, and their quest to secure the assistance of the Northern Alliance forces arrayed against the Taliban, I went to great pains to write the history as accurately and truthfully as could be portrayed while inserting fictional characters into actual events. The members of the CIA insertion team that I created are all entirely fictional. The real-life men who comprised Operation Jawbreaker are both CIA and American heroes.

 

I tried to tell Kris and David’s story at the same time I painted the picture of the Afghanistan invasion led by the CIA. Kris and David undertake missions that the actual CIA officers did: mapping the front lines, using laser-guided SOFLAMS to target-designate Taliban and al-Qaeda positions for bombing runs, and following Bin Laden to his mountain hideout in Tora Bora.

 

Below are photos from the actual mission:

CIA team inserting into the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan. (Courtesy, CIA)
Renaming the tail number on the insertion helo – 91101. (Courtesy, CIA)
Afghanistan Blood Chit. Written in all the local languages, this blood chit was worn in a container around the officer’s necks. If they were captured, this chit promised whoever recovered the officer a significant reward for their return to US forces. Luckily, no officer was captured in the invasion of Afghanistan, though several CIA officers lost their lives. (Courtesy, CIA)
Saddle used by the Afghan Uzbeki fighters in the north. In the novel, they are led by General Hajimullah, and they fight to retake Taloquan and Mazer-e-Sharif. The saddles were far smaller and firmer than any Western saddle. After riding in them, most American were severely bruised and rubbed raw. (Courtesy, CIA Museum)
One of Kris & David’s missions is to map the front lines of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban/al-Qaeda forces. Kris and David spent days meticulously mapping with GPS units the precise locations of friendly versus opposition forces, to enable precision targeting during the military’s bombing campaign. (Courtesy, CIA)
More GPS mapping of the front lines in Afghanistan. Without accurate maps of the forces arrayed on the battlefield, the military could not begin their bombing runs. It was critical to only bomb enemy positions, and not inflict any casualties on friendly forces or innocent civilians. (Courtesy, CIA)
These are the SOFLAM laser target designators Kris and David use in Whisper, and were used by the CIA in Afghanistan in 2001. (Courtesy, CIA)
The front lines between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance went straight across Bagram Airfield. The Northern Alliance held the control tower, which had seen it’s share of fighting. This is how Bagram looked when the CIA took control of the airfield, following the fall of the Taliban in Kabul. (Courtesy. US Air Force Central Command)

 

Following the CIA’s invasion and the fall of the Taliban in Kabul, al-Qaeda retreated to their mountain camps around Tora Bora. The hunt for Bin Laden in the mountains lasted through November and into early December. Though the Special Forces team was within feet of Bin Laden at one point, they were unable to capture him. Bin Laden slipped through the Spin Ghar mountains and made his way into the remote tribal regions of Pakistan, where he hid for some time. In the novel, I recount the Battle of Tora Bora through David’s eyes.

 

Bin Laden in his Tora Bora complex. (Courtesy, CIA & Southern District of NY District Attorney’s Office)
Bombing Tora Bora. Actual images taken from the forward team – represented in Whisper as Forward Team Bravo – as they bombed Tora Bora and Bin Laden’s hideout. (Courtesy, CIA)
Al-Qaeda training manual, recovered in the ruins of Bin Laden’s complex. (Courtesy, CIA Museum)

 

After Tora Bora, the novel follows Kris and David onto the CIA’s next priority: capturing and interrogating al-Qaeda’s highest-level commanders. Kris is intimately involved in the capture of the CIA’s first high-value target…

 

Questions:

What do you think when you read “historical fiction”?

How soon is too soon, when writing about recent history?

Is there a different feel to reading recent history than there is to history from a more distant time?

 


 

Whisper Releases April 26!!

 

The truth is complicated.

On September 11th, 2001, Kris Caldera was a junior member of the CIA’s Alec Station, the unit dedicated to finding and stopping Osama Bin Laden.

They failed.

Ten days later, he was on the ground in Afghanistan with a Special Forces team, driven to avenge the ghosts that haunted him and the nation he’d let down. On the battlefield, he meets Special Forces Sergeant David Haddad. David – Arab American, Muslim, and gay – becomes the man Kris loves, the man he lives for, and the man he kills for, through the long years of the raging wars.

David Haddad thought he’d be an outsider his whole life. Too American for the Middle East, too Arab for America, and too gay to be Muslim. It took Kris to bring the parts of himself together, to make him the man he’d always wanted to be. But the War on Terror wreaks havoc on David’s soul, threatening to shatter the fragile peace he’s finally found with Kris.

When a botched mission rips David from Kris’s life, Kris’s world falls into ruin and ash. A shell of the man who once loved with the strength to shake both the CIA and the world, he marks time on the edges of his life. The days bleed together, meaningless after losing the love of his life.

After being captured, tortured to the edge of his life, and left for dead by his comrades, David doesn’t know how much of himself is left. He vanished one day in the tribal belt of Pakistan, and the man who walks out almost a decade later is someone new: Al Dakhil Al-Khorasani.

But strange rumblings are whispering through the CIA. Intelligence from multiple sources overseas points to something new. Something deadly, and moving to strike the United States. Intercepts say an army from Khorasan, the land of the dead where the Apocalypse of Islam will rise, is coming.

And, at the head of this army, a shadowy figure the US hasn’t seen before: Al Dakhil Al-Khorasani.

 

David is coming home.

 

 

Whisper Chapter 6 Excerpt

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes, and the last excerpt of Whisper before the release! This week, enjoy a sneak peek at Chapter 6!


 

Chapter 6

Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan

September 27, 2001

 

War, like all things, moved slowly.

Scouting the front lines was delayed. The trucks Kris ordered from Khan arrived through Ghasi and Fazl, hulks of scrap metal with bullet holes and overheating engines. Each had a bucket of water in the bed and old mounts for a Russian PK machine gun. They’d been technicals once, the light cavalry of warlords and sanctioned countries the world over: old, beat-up pickup trucks retrofitted with machine guns.

“Captured from Taliban,” Fazl said, pride in his voice. “Now they are ours. Yours.”

Despite General Khan’s insistence that he wanted to move quickly, he still seemed to operate on Afghan Time. George, Ryan, and Palmer fumed as one day bled into the next and the Shura Nazar officers still hadn’t arrived for the joint intelligence cell.

“The culture isn’t based on linear thinking, George.” Kris tried to calm another of Ryan and George’s rants. They paced on the concrete porch as they drank cups of instant coffee. “The culture is based on relationships. Impressions. Time is an afterthought to the importance of relationships.”

“We don’t have time to waste on relationships,” George growled.

“You’re going to have to make time. You can’t force this. We’re guests in their country asking for their help.”

Ryan snorted. “We can do this without their help. We really can.”

George’s jaw worked, his teeth grinding. “What do you suggest, Caldera? As the Afghanistan expert?”

“Slow down. Connect more with Khan, with the Shura Nazar forces.”

“Speaking of connecting—”

George shot a harsh glare at Ryan, shaking his head sharply. Ryan held up his hands, but he stared Kris down.

“How are the intercepts coming?”

Kris sighed. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the headache that lived behind his eyeballs. “Good, so far. We’re getting a shit ton of traffic. I’m going as fast as I can, but…” He trailed off. His fastest still wasn’t enough to keep up with everything they were getting.

Half a day in-country, Phillip had broken into the Taliban radio net. Every Taliban radio transmission in range of their receivers was vacuumed up and recorded. Kris spent hours listening in real-time and to the recordings, translating endless conversations in Dari and Arabic.

Al-Qaeda used a different radio frequency, and Phillip hadn’t had as much success breaking into their radio net. Yet. Part of the problem was that the team’s headquarters was so far from al-Qaeda’s base of operations. The Taliban front lines were far closer.

“Sergeant Haddad has been helping you translate?” George’s voice went thin. His gaze was guarded.

Kris nodded. He said nothing.

Haddad stuck to him like he was Kris’s personal shadow. From sunrise, when the team rose, all through the day, and into the evening. When the radio transmissions started piling up, Haddad jumped in, grabbing a set of headphones and listening in to the Arabic transmissions, the Taliban communicating with al-Qaeda, or foreign fighters within the Taliban ranks.

He and Haddad hadn’t spoken much. Translating radio intercepts wasn’t a talkative job. After, Kris was so brain-dead and exhausted that he usually stayed quiet throughout dinner and the team meetings. But Haddad was always right there, at his side. Most evenings, he sat close enough that Kris could slouch into his side. He could almost rest his head on Haddad’s shoulder.

But he didn’t.

Not because he didn’t want to.

It was Ryan who stopped him, and George. The eyes that followed him at headquarters, the snide comments behind his back. The guys from The Farm, even, in training, who’d thought he’d never make it through, would never graduate and become an officer. Everything and everyone stopped him.

Ryan’s eyes glittered, the way he watched Kris, like a predator stalking a gazelle on the savanna. One wrong move, one mistake, and Kris would prove everyone’s worst imaginings, their worst prejudices, right.

And what would Haddad think if he folded into Haddad bodily the way his soul was folding into his care and comfort? What was this, between them? He didn’t know, and he couldn’t know. Couldn’t imagine anything, either. There was no time, no space to wonder, or to dream. Each day was spent living one hour at a time, doing what they had to do. Building an alliance. Starting a war. Striking back.

Every night, Kris retreated to his sleeping bag early, collapsing for a few hours of fitful sleep. He woke in the middle of the night, inevitably, and crawled out to the radio room. If he was up, then he might as well translate some radio intercepts.

Haddad had followed him, about an hour later, the first night. He hadn’t said anything, just sat beside Kris and started working on his own translations.

Every morning, as the first beams of the cold marigold sun began to peek through the mountains, Haddad brought him a cup of instant coffee and insisted he take a break. The rest of the team woke up to them sitting around the fire, sometimes talking softly, sometimes just staring at the flames.

Occasionally, Haddad asked about life at the CIA. What Kris did at Langley, and how he liked working there. Kris asked him about the Army, about the Special Forces.

Haddad said training was awful, he loved the camaraderie and brotherhood, and that he’d deployed to Somalia and survived the Battle of Mogadishu. He didn’t say much after that.

There was no privacy in their compound, or in the village. Everyone saw how Haddad stuck by him, how close they were becoming. Every meal was eaten side by side. They all ate together on a wide blanket spread in the corner of the main compound, surrounded by cushions. Occasionally, Haddad slid a piece of meat to Kris’s plate, or gave him two apples and his hunk of fresh-baked bread. Every night, they retired to the same sleeping room.

Their sleeping bags were islands in the little stone room, though. As much as Kris might wonder what was happening between them, the six inches of empty space between their sleeping bags was answer enough. To Haddad, he must be someone to protect. A part of the mission, something catalogued and itemized and checked, like his medical equipment and his rifle.

Should he be bothered that Haddad thought he needed so much caretaking?

The truth was, he didn’t want to fight it. He liked Haddad’s protection, his quiet care. A part of him even craved it.

Dangerous ground, he warned himself. Dangerous territory. Focus on the mission.

Besides, you’re not worth someone like him. He should do better than the likes of you.

Kris slipped up to the roof of their compound in the evenings to watch the sun set. Phillip and Jim were up there five times a day, cleaning the fuel filter of the generator and trying to keep their power up and running. The fuel in Afghanistan was so poorly refined that it clogged their generator, shutting everything down. When Derek saw the condition of the generator’s filter, he booked it back down to the airfield and checked their parked helo. Both fuel filters were clogged, almost completely. Had they flown any farther during their initial flight, they would have stalled and crashed.

Afghanistan’s war-ravaged past littered the country as far as the eye could see. The village they were in had been captured six out of the eight times the Soviets had invaded the Panjshir Valley. It was the high-water mark of their invasion. They’d never succeeded in advancing any farther. The Afghans had pushed them back each time, devastating the Soviets. For months, the village had been shelled and bombed day and night during the invasion, almost fifteen years before. Every building had crumbled. The rubble of old houses stood beside the new square mud homes, the entire village shifted ten feet to the left. Resilience in its purest form.

Massoud had led his fighters against the Soviets and against the Taliban. He’d been an Afghan nationalist for longer than Kris had been alive. His presence, his influence, his leadership, was everywhere in the Panjshir, permeating the people and the nation.

Al-Qaeda had succeeded where empires had failed, extinguishing the life of the strongest warlord in Afghanistan. Massoud’s death had been their opening act to September 11.

If September 11 hadn’t happened, if it had been stopped, would Masood still be alive?

Could it have been stopped? If his team, if he, had shared what they knew of Marwan al-Shehhi, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar? Could the hijackers have been stopped?

He tried to rein in his morose thoughts, tried to stop the tumble and slide of his mind into the darkness of shame.

“Caldera?” Haddad’s voice cut through the miasma, the fog that surrounded him. Kris turned. Haddad strode across the empty roof. Jim and Phillip had left, probably long ago, through with cleaning the fuel filter. They’d be back in a few hours, at it again.

“Hey.” The sun had almost set, the sky streaked with watercolor pastels, lilac and periwinkle, persimmon and cornflower. Stars winked overhead, burning points that speared through the sky, undaunted by city lights or pollution. When the night turned black, and the only light came from the fire and the red night-vision bulbs they switched over to, the night sky looked like a beachhead of the universe, the stars like the sand of the galaxy twinkling as waves and waves of darkness rolled over the world.

Staring up at the stars made him feel like he was the only human on the entire planet. For once, the universe appeared as lonely as he felt, seemed to echo inside all of his empty places.

Haddad stopped at Kris’s shoulder, close enough that their arms, their thighs, their hips brushed, swayed back and forth. In a moment, Haddad would step away, cough and look down, shift, and try and play the touches off. Kris saw it all the time.

“It’s pretty here.” Haddad’s voice was soft, deep. “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the worst atrocities happen in the most beautiful places. Somalia was like that, in a way. And—” He stopped. Swallowed. “Makes you wonder sometimes. Why the world’s like this.”

Kris sighed. “Everything’s connected. It’s all one big web. A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and the stock market crashes. We thought we could ignore Afghanistan, but we were wrong. Where does it all begin, though? Where’s the beginning of the web? Of this hate?”

Massoud fighting the Taliban. Massoud fighting the Russians, the communists, America’s enemy. There was a thread connecting everything together, he knew it. History was a flow that tumbled all things to their end, consequences and outcomes frothing up from the actions and reactions of time. What were they creating now, in their moment? What would tumble forth, ever onward, from their actions, this time?

Haddad sighed. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket. He didn’t step away. Kris felt every inch of his breath, the slow rise and fall of his chest. “Whatever beginning there is, it was long before now.”

Kris’s soul flinched, his insides carved out so suddenly he almost collapsed. His mouth moved. He tried to breathe, tried to speak. Couldn’t. Black flags flapped in the distance, on the edge of the horizon, and in the back of his mind, burned into the backs of his eyelids.

Haddad stared at him beneath the stars. In the darkness, his eyes were stars themselves, too close to Kris, burning through him, exposing him. “Caldera?” His words puffed in front of his face, the chill of the night trying to freeze their bones.

Kris stepped back. “We should get inside.” His breath fluttered, as if it could escape him. “Ryan… He’ll wonder where I am.”

Haddad said nothing, just walked with Kris down to the landing and then into the compound.

George and Ryan both looked up as they walked in together. Kris saw them trade long looks.

At his side, Haddad stared back.

 


 

In the morning, Khan’s promised officers arrived: Wael and Bashir. They got to work and connected with the Shura Nazar radio operators across the Panjshir, started receiving detailed intelligence and information reports from each outpost. Taliban frontline positions, fortifications, fighters, and armaments. Observations of troop movements. Even what some of the Taliban ate for breakfast.

Kris helped tack up a wall-sized map of Afghanistan in their command center. George and Ryan marked off the positions Wael and Bashir identified, setting pins wrapped with colored string around the Taliban and Shura Nazar positions. Ryan faded away after, hovering over Phillip as he transmitted the morning’s reports back to Langley over the fussy secured satellite interlink.

“If we start bombing, and we don’t have exact GPS positions on the Shura Nazar forces, we’re going to be killing a lot of innocent people.” George scrubbed his face. “Kris, the GPS positions are critical. We have to know exactly where they are.”

“I know. I’ll get it done.” What was this, him being given possibly the most critical job on the team? George, for all his criticism, his dark glares and veiled stares, wanted the mission to succeed. Wanted the US to wash Afghanistan in righteous vengeance, destroy the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, and even bolster the Shura Nazar.

“You’re the best linguist of us all, Kris. And you understand the people more than the rest of us. You’ve connected with Khan. You’re the only one who can make sure nothing is missed.” Over his coffee, George’s eyes looked like sunken pits, eyeballs falling into sagging crevices of exhaustion. “Ryan, Jim, and Palmer are going to take the Special Forces guys and survey the Shura Nazar forces. See what kind of support they need. Supplies.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes closed again. “We—the team, Langley, CENTCOM, even the president—can’t do anything until you get back with those coordinates.”

“I understand, George.” Pressure coiled around his spine. Was it not enough he had thousands of souls on his conscience already? Should he add the nation of Afghanistan to his guilt? “What about the MREs? I told General Khan I would be providing aid to his people.”

“And you’ll be bringing it. All of it. God help us, I hope we don’t starve.”

“Ghasi is taking care of us.”

“For now. I’ve requested a resupply from Langley. They have to fly the MREs to us from Germany through Tajikistan. It will take a week. I hope our goodwill with the Shura Nazar lasts that long.”

Don’t be an asshole, and it will. Kris bit his tongue. “When do I leave?”

“They’re packing everything into your truck now. The driver who brought Wael and Bashir is taking you down to the front as soon as that’s done. Are you ready?”

He’d been packed for days, since George had first told him he was going. Kris nodded.

“Good luck. We’re all counting on you.” George shook his hand, the firmest he’d ever had, as if George meant what he was saying. “If anyone can do this, it’s you.”

He didn’t know what to say.

Haddad appeared at their elbows. “Truck is packed, sir.”

George’s eyes skittered away from Kris. “Good. Time for you both to head out.”

“Both?” Kris looked from Haddad to George and back.

“No one goes anywhere alone. You two seem to work well together. Haddad will provide security and backup while you’re scouting positions with General Khan.”

Haddad gave Kris the tiniest smile.

 


 

Within the hour, they were bouncing down the loosest definition of a road, ever, in their truck. It was a bone-shattering one hundred miles to the front lines, but it might as well have been a thousand. The mountain track winding through the Panjshir was one lane wide, big enough for horses or camels. Any width added by the Soviets during the invasion had long crumbled away into ruin. Craters and remnants of artillery and splintered bombs littered the mountains, the roadside, the road itself. Dust, millennia of dust, blew around the truck until Kris couldn’t see. He couldn’t brace himself when the truck inevitably careened into the craters, the pits in the road. Each jolt felt like a car accident, felt like he’d been rear-ended by a semi.

He sat in the front while Haddad sat in the back with both their daypacks. Kris had packed all his cold weather gear—sweaters, neoprene undersuit, wool gloves, scarves, Haddad’s hat—water, and a few MREs for himself. Haddad’s pack was larger. The MREs for Khan were in the truck bed.

Two hours into the drive, just over halfway to the front, the road curled around a blind bend in the mountain and then opened up, descending to a verdant, wide river valley, the mouth of the Panjshir Valley. The river that wound through the village collected tributaries and creeks through its passage south and had widened to a flat delta spread between the mountains. Mudbrick homes, ringed in apple orchards and small farms, squatted between the peaks on the bank of the delta. They were a million miles away from home, but, for a moment, it seemed like a scene from President Lincoln’s childhood.

On the opposite peak, fluttering above the valley, a line of green flags waved in the wind. Martyr’s flags. Sunlight splintered into the mountain, streaks of light that hit each one.

“General Massoud’s grave?” Kris’s stomach knotted.

Their driver nodded, but didn’t look up. His hands clenched around the steering wheel until the old plastic squealed. He refused to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks as he sped them out of the valley and toward the Shomali Plain.

An hour later, after speeding along the northern edge of the Shomali Plain and hugging the mountains and cliffs, their driver turned toward a compound surrounded by a chain-link fence twined with barbed wire. Blocky concrete buildings, reminiscent of Soviet architecture, loomed within. T-72 Russian tanks and Soviet artillery lay parked in even rows. Sandbagged machine gun positions hovered before the compound with antiaircraft positions dug into the hills above. Soldiers in crisp, clean uniforms manned guard posts, watching their approach with an eagle eye, weapons at the ready. They recognized their driver, but gave Kris and Haddad long, lingering looks.

Radios on the guards’ waists chirped, spitting out Dari. The guards listened, and then opened the gates and waved the truck through. A delegation of officers waited across the clearing, at the compound’s entrance.

“This is… much more organized than we expected,” Haddad said under his breath. “I’ve seen Army bases run with less precision.”

Kris met his gaze through the rusted rearview mirror. A motley band of guerilla fighters, these people were not.

General Khan waited at the steps of the compound. He beamed when he spotted Kris through the filthy passenger window.

Gul Bahar!” Laughing, Khan held both his hands open as Kris climbed out of the truck, shaking his limbs loose and trying to reseat joints banged up and bruised from the brutal drive. “I am pleased you are here.” Khan hugged him tight and kissed both of his cheeks. He held one hand over his heart.

Haddad waited behind Kris. “David Haddad,” he said simply, holding out his ungloved hands. He clasped Khan’s hand in both of his as they shook, bowing slightly. “Thank you for your hospitality, General.”

Khan’s chest swelled. His smile grew. “Come, come, we will share tea,” he said in his stilted English. He beckoned them both into the compound.

Kris turned back to the truck for his pack. Haddad stopped him. “There’s only one pack.”

“What? I packed mine and loaded it into the truck myself. Did it get left behind?”

Haddad shook his head. He hefted his own, much larger than it had been when they left. He didn’t strain, didn’t flinch. “I repacked everything. Into my bag.”

Sergeant—”

“The general is waiting for us.”

Khan called from the doorway. “Come! The tea will be cold!”

He wanted to scream, rip the pack from Haddad’s shoulders and shake out all his belongings. He could carry his own weight, Goddamn it. Wasn’t that his vow from day one? He could handle himself. What right did Haddad have, butting in and sweeping everything away from him? Wrapping him up in… What was this? Consideration? Or condescension?

Haddad nodded for him to follow Khan. Kris sighed, a promise that they would revisit this later, that the conversation was not finished. He had to put his foot down before Haddad ran right over him and his convictions.

Khan eyed Haddad shouldering their shared pack. He smiled again at Kris. “Agha Gul Bahar.”

Agha, the honorific title for a man of respect. A leader, the man in charge. Kris stared at Haddad.

Haddad smothered a smile as he looked down, keeping behind Kris’s shoulder. Deferential.

Damn it, he’d done it on purpose. And he’d known what message shouldering the pack would send, what General Khan and the others would see out of his actions. Haddad had just shown Khan, and all the Afghans, that Kris was his leader, his superior. That Kris should be treated as an equal to General Khan.

Kris followed Khan, winding through corridors and up narrow staircases until they arrived at the top floor, General Khan’s private office and quarters. The room provided a panoramic view of the Shomali Plain, the former breadbasket of Afghanistan. Once, it had been a lush garden, fruit orchards and farmers’ fields from the eastern slopes of the Hindu Kush to the desert edges of western Afghanistan, all the way to the gates of Kabul.

Now, armies ringed both sides of the Plain, Taliban and Shura Nazar. Decades of war had ravaged the land, turning the fields to desolate wastes, as pitted and pocked as the moon, and just as welcoming. Only the dead lived in the Plain now.

Khan called for tea and bread to be brought out. Young soldiers, no more than boys, scurried in, balancing trays of tea with chipped Russian glasses and plates of hot, fresh-baked bread. Apples and dates followed, and fresh yogurt. Kris could smell the milk, the tart skin of the apples.

Khan sat beside him, right next to him, on floor cushions before the window. Haddad settled down a respectful distance away.

They spoke gently, chatting back and forth over tea for almost an hour. Khan wanted to know how Kris liked Afghanistan and the Panjshir, the valley Khan had called home for over forty years. He could name every tree, every creek, every fruit that grew. He knew the horse and camel tracks like he knew the twists of veins on the backs of his hands. The land was in his soul, and his bones were made of Afghanistan’s dust, his blood her waters.

Kris spoke honestly, telling Khan he thought the country was breathtaking, the land beautiful, but scarred by conflict and brutality. Haunted by sadness. Khan agreed, and their conversation shifted to what his people needed, and the supplies Kris had brought. Khan grasped his hand and held on, their hands resting on Khan’s knee. The entire time, Haddad sat silently nearby, sipping his tea and calmly watching their back-and-forth in Dari. He couldn’t understand a word.

Finally, Khan shifted to the business of why Kris was down on the front lines. Had George been there, Kris thought, he’d have crawled out of his skin long before, stepping all over Khan’s friendship and relationship-building in his quest to get things done immediately and ferociously.

“We must travel my front lines, yes? Plot positions of all forces?”

“Yes, General.” Haddad passed over the GPS units. “We need exact positions of your forces.”

“This is so your planes can bomb the Taliban? So you can destroy them completely?”

Kris nodded. “We want to make sure none of your people are mistakenly targeted—”

“If you destroy the Taliban, and my people fall while fighting beside you, it will be an honorable death. As long as the Taliban are wiped from Afghanistan in the end. Them, and their al-Qaeda allies,” Khan growled, spitting out his last words. “Those al-Qaeda dogs, they are filth in this land.”

Stunned, Kris sat silent for a moment. Haddad stared at him, eyes burning into Kris’s profile. He’d sensed the change in the conversation, the ebb and flow, though he couldn’t understand the meaning.

“Khan is fine with collateral damage,” Kris breathed, passing back the GPS handheld. “As long as we obliterate the enemy.”

Haddad’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

Khan let go of Kris’s hand and stood. “Let us begin this survey. The sooner we get it done, the sooner you begin dropping your bombs.”

 


 

Khan led them to a convoy of trucks in the courtyard and guided Kris and Haddad to the back of his truck, giving the signal to his convoy to move out. As they drove, Haddad started taking photographs, snapping pictures of the fortifications on the hills, dug into the mountains above, and across the dreary plains toward Kabul.

“Our front lines are not what you imagined, yes?” Khan twisted around in the front seat. For Haddad, he spoke in his heavily accented English. “It never is for you. From the West.  Journalists, they come sometimes. They are disappointed. We are no savages, guerilla fighters around campfires, shivering as we starve.” Khan laughed.

On their right, the hills bled upward into the northern mountains. Khan’s soldiers had fortified positions running up the slopes, embedded fighting positions, machine gun placements, and antiaircraft positions. Bunkers ran along the ridgeline. “We own the high ground here. The hills, the mountains. We have built bunkers in place, and have solid firing positions for miles across the Plain. Our lines run down into the Shomali, across Bagram Airfield.”

“With the high ground, you can see all of the Taliban movements in the Shomali?” Kris asked as Haddad took more photos.

“Everything they do, we see. We have tanks and artillery. To keep them in place. If they break out of the Shomali and try to cross our lines—” Khan grinned. “They will be destroyed.”

“You’re organized, you’re armed, you have the high ground. Why do you not attack?”

Khan sighed. The truck bounced and swerved, weaving and climbing along the hillside. He slipped back to Dari. “We hold them in place. But they hold us in place as well. I do not have the men or the arms to mount an attack. I only have the strength to repel their attacks, and hold the Taliban out of the Panjshir.” Khan nodded to Kris. “This is where you come in. Why we have invited the Americans to help us.”

“We have a common enemy, General.”

“The people of Afghanistan have been enemies of the Taliban for years, agha Gul Bahar. But now the Taliban are your enemy, too. The Taliban killed thousands of Afghans for years before they killed your Americans.”

Kris kept his mouth shut. The taste of ash filled his mouth, acrid smoke that seemed to fill his soul. He closed his eyes, rocking sideways as the truck slipped past a boulder in the road.

They pulled to a stop at the base of a winding hillside track. “We go up.” Khan pointed to the steep, narrow track zigzagging past boulders and through low scrub. They’d continue on foot to the crest of the ridge overlooking the Shomali. “The front is there. We will follow the front and plot your maps. Come!”

Kris struggled to keep up with Khan. He slid out on the loose dirt, the rocky soil, falling to his hands to steady himself. They were climbing a mountain, but the base was already at almost ten thousand feet of elevation. He felt like he was sprinting up the Rocky Mountains. Each breath seemed thin, as though there wasn’t enough air left in the world for him to survive.

Haddad followed behind, carrying their pack. Kris heard his grunts, his labored breaths, his soft curses under his wheezes. He wanted to offer to share the load, carry the pack for half of the climb. If he did, he’d die, though. He would tip over backward and slide to the bottom of the hills, or collapse like a tin can under the weight of the pack. He wanted to do more, be more, especially for Haddad. But it was all he could do to cling to the dirt and keep climbing, following behind General Khan, who roared up the mountain like it was his morning walk.

It probably was.

Finally, they arrived at the top. Khan politely waited, looking away as Haddad pulled out his canteen. He offered it to Kris first. Kris refused, and Haddad downed half the bottle as Kris hovered beside him, breathing hard with his hands on his hips. Haddad passed over the canteen and wiped his face, dripping with sweat.

“You okay?” Kris muttered. “That was…”

“Awful.” Haddad chuckled. “That was terrible.” He spat in the dirt, rolled his shoulders. “But I’m good.”

“You shouldn’t have repacked everything. You shouldn’t have had to carry everything up by yourself. I can carry my own weight.”

Haddad’s gaze pierced him, again seeming to look right through him. “I know you can. I didn’t do this because I thought you were weak. I wanted the General to see you right. To treat you the right way.”

“What way is that?”

“As the leader. The man in charge, and the expert. I’m just your muscle here.”

“Sergeant—”

“No rank. Not here, not now.”

Khan called out, “Are you ready to carry on?”

Haddad raised his eyebrows, waiting for Kris.

“Yes, General.” Kris turned away from Haddad and joined Khan. From above, the Shomali was a blurry mess of brown, all the shades of brown Kris had ever seen, from oily tar to dusty, smog-filled air choking the distance. Kabul was a smudge, a rub of dirt on the horizon, surrounded by fallow, empty farmland and desert. Dirty snow rose on the Hindu Kush to the east.

“This is the eastern end of my front lines.” Khan spoke in English and waved over the ridgeline, the Shomali Plain below. “We will follow the front to the west. You will see our positions and those of the Taliban. You can see them now, in fact.”

“Can they see us?”

He waved his hand in the air, a vague, kinda-sorta gesture. “They like to shoot off rounds of artillery if they think strange things happening. They are sometimes lucky.”

Haddad stepped Kris’s back, like he could protect Kris with his muscles, shield Kris from an artillery strike with his presence alone.

Khan led them down the front lines, following a well-worn trail behind his men and their fighting positions. Dug-in foxholes and sandbag-reinforced berms shielded Shura Nazar fighters. “Everything in the Shomali, the Taliban have destroyed. Farms, houses, villages. All gone. They took over the villages outside Kabul. Everyone who used to live there is gone.” He mimed shooting a gun as if he were executing someone. “They use these villages as bases, bunkers. Artillery can hurt them, but to truly fight the Taliban there, you need either close fighting, village by village, or—” He smiled. “Or, your American bombs must fall on them.”

Haddad peered across the plains. “What about al-Qaeda?”

“The Arab fighters are embedded in the Taliban. They keep to their own units. They fight better than the Taliban. They can aim. They are fierce fighters, especially those from Chechnya and Central Asia. They want to die fighting. They love death. The Taliban keep the Arabs out of range of our artillery, in a line that circles Kabul, beyond the outer villages.”

“You can show us where they are?”

“Come. We will begin plotting.” Khan waved them both toward a bunker built into the hillside, behind the fighting positions and beneath the artillery. It was a concrete box with slits for windows, built to withstand Taliban artillery fire. Inside the dark, musty, frigid room, wooden beams, cut from thick trees, propped up the concrete ceiling. Lanterns burned on a central table laid with maps of Afghanistan in Russian and Persian. Khan spread his hands wide. “Let us begin.”

Haddad dropped their pack and Kris pulled out their maps, marked with rough information about the front lines. As Khan read off the positions of his own forces, Kris translated those to their map, marking exactly where Khan’s forces were placed. All three maps were in different scales: American, Persian, and Russian geographic scales all using different measurement systems. After Kris jumped through the conversions and marked Khan’s positions on their map, Haddad input the coordinates into the GPS system, saving each entry as “friendly forces.”

Khan checked each coordinate, approved each input into the GPS.

Every few hours, they moved down the line to the next bunker. In the afternoon, Khan radioed for lunch, and they sat with Shura Nazar fighters, sharing mystery meat roasted over a fire, and apples, rice, and tea. Haddad was drenched in sweat, even though the temperature hovered in the upper thirties. Kris offered to carry something, anything, to lighten the load. Haddad refused.

At the end of the day, they had half of the Shomali Plain mapped. Khan called for them to quit as the sun began to descend, and a hoarse Shura Nazar soldier started crying the azan, the call to prayer. Kris and Haddad stood to the side as Khan joined his soldiers, everyone kneeling and facing southwest to pray.

“Are you a believer?” Kris leaned into Haddad’s side, whispering in his ear. Haddad wasn’t praying with the Shura Nazar.

Haddad hesitated. “I was raised Muslim.”

Kris frowned. “With a name like David, I thought…”

“It’s actually Dawood. I changed it when we moved to America. And I stopped going to the mosque then, too.” He smiled, but it seemed strained, almost forced. “There were too many other things to do, especially in high school.”

Kris chuckled. His own high school years had been a blur of hormones and hot boys, pimples and his gangly body growing in too fast. He’d wanted to inject New York City straight into his veins, live the fast life, but he’d been all mouth and legs and pimply sass. It had taken college to blunt those edges, and then a few years of government grind to force him down even further. A few years of stares and glares and socialization, being ostracized from the herd when he was too loud, too gay, being welcomed when he was conforming just enough. Psychology 101, Pavlovian responses, building a life.

And one attack to shatter his soul.

“So you don’t still believe? Or pray?”

Haddad shrugged. “Feels like a lifetime ago. A different person. You?”

His mamita had dragged him to Catholic mass when he was a boy, licking his hair into place and forcing him to wear those awful shiny shoes that pinched his feet. He tagged along until he was old enough to stay out Saturday nights, just late enough that he could whine and bitch about not wanting to get up early to go to Mass. Mamita had soured at him, her lips pursed like she’d sucked on a lemon, but after three months straight of that act, she never asked him to go with her again. At the time, it had felt like a weight had been pulled from him, like Atlas had set down the world. Not having to pretend, to endure the stares, the whispers, the questions about when he’d bring a sweet girl to Mass with him and Mamita.

He hadn’t had to think too deeply about things like eternal guilt, hellfire, and damnation. He’d flat-out refused to believe he’d burn in hell for liking dick. That was ridiculous.

But murder? Three thousand souls hung from his soul. Their screams shredded his bones, the sobs of families ripped apart drowned him in his nightmares. I’m getting revenge, he’d whisper. I’m avenging you.

It’s not good enough. It will never be good enough. Like a constant refrain, the words echoed up from the nothingness, the pit within him that had opened at 8:46 AM, Tuesday, September 11.

“No. I don’t believe.” Kris crossed his arms. Shook his head. Looked away.

Haddad stared at him. Said nothing.

After prayers and another dinner of mystery meat, fruit, rice, and tea, Khan led them to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters, caves chipped into the hills behind and above the bunker. Some of the Shura Nazar had been living in the caves for years. The sleeping nests looked permanent, and lanterns hung on the rock face. Fire pits dug deep holes into the dirt, dark smoke blackening the cave walls and ceiling.

Kris and Haddad received their own cave, next to the others, but for their private use. Two cushions lay next to a fire pit.

“We will meet again after morning prayers.” Khan, as gregarious as he had been that morning, shook their hands and bade them good night, disappearing to his own cave to rest. Echoes of soldiers’ conversations in soft Dari floated on the twilight.

Haddad dropped their pack with a heavy sigh. He closed his eyes and rolled his neck, groaning.

“Sit down. I’ll unpack.”

For once, Haddad didn’t fight him. He slid down the rock face to the dirt as Kris pulled out their sleeping bags, extra sweaters, and water bottles.

Kris eyed the small cave. The fire flickered, throwing off enough light to scatter glittering shadows into the darkness, an amber glow that seemed to conceal more than illuminate. The cave was warm, enough that they wouldn’t freeze. But when the fire burned low, they would be cold. Very cold.

Should they bracket the fire? Sleeping bags on either side, and try to keep it going all night? Would Haddad insist on staying awake and trading shifts to watch over it?

“We’ll need to sleep side by side. For warmth.” Haddad tugged at one of the cushions, dragging it across the dirt and sliding it beside the other. “We can lay the sleeping bags next to each other. It will help, especially when it drops below freezing.”

Silent, Kris laid their bags out as Haddad directed. He felt Haddad’s gaze on him, heavy, weighted with something. It was almost like Ryan’s stare, but it moved through him in a different way.

He didn’t want to run from Haddad.

 


 

Haddad crawled into his sleeping bag and passed out almost immediately. Kris stayed awake, watching the flames flicker on the cave walls, watching the shadows turn to puppets and plays, images dancing in front of his unfocused gaze.

As the soldiers went to sleep, the front lines quieted, a silence that seemed to saturate time. Without the noisy snores of George and Ryan, without Phillip and Jim working on the radios, or the soft chirps and whirrs of the computers in the nerve center humming away, or the groan and chug of the generator, it was as if the world had gone adrift. Three weeks ago, he’d been at Langley in the United States, and now he sat before a fire on the front lines of a war in a corner of the world that wasn’t on most maps. Somewhere, sometime in those three weeks, he’d bungee jumped from the edge of reality, and he was still falling. When would he snap back?

Or was he going to fall forever?

Eventually, Kris slid into his own sleeping bag, his back to Haddad. Haddad had spread out, sprawled on his back, one arm over his head and the other flung wide, as if waiting for someone to crawl in next to him, curl into his side. He’d look amazing with a sweet girl against him, someone kind and gentle who thought he was her Superman. Kris could see a perky American blonde, someone with a button nose and a cheerleader’s outfit from high school in her closet. She’d have porcelain skin and blue eyes, the classic American beauty, the look that had been force-fed to him his entire life as the impossible standard. She’d be someone who scrunched up her nose at him, winked over coffee. Someone who held his hand as they walked through a farmers’ market together, picking out weird fruits and farm-fresh flowers and homemade breads, getting suckered into buying local honey. Haddad would protect her, shield her, be her hero against the world. He’d be gallant, her knight in shining armor.

He’d be like he was with Kris, a personal guardian angel. Except he’d be hers, and she’d know it. And she’d love him for it every day.

Kris lay on the very edge of his cushion, his head just barely resting over Haddad’s outflung arm. He stared at the flames. The heat prickling his eyes was the scorch of the fire, too bright for his eyes. Nothing else.

Haddad’s arm fell across his waist, and his body scooted in behind Kris. Sleeping bags rubbed together, nylon whining as Haddad pressed as close as he could, separated by the vast distance of compressed down. Haddad nuzzled his face into Kris’s neck. His beard, unshaven since Tashkent, tickled Kris’s skin. His breath smelled of black tea and ghee, the Himalayan butter. His snores were soft, gentle puffs of breath that tickled Kris’s ear.

Kris let his soul pour backward, let his body go limp, let everything he was fall into Haddad’s sleeping hold.

Just for this night. Just until dawn.

 


 

The scratchy, off-tune wail of the soldier’s muezzin calling the azan woke them as the first ray of sunlight split the horizon and peeked into the cave.

Kris woke bundled in warmth, wrapped in two arms of solid muscle, strength and power that kept the world and darkness at bay. His cheek nuzzled a scratchy beard, a warm face. Safety flowed through him, and a flicker of contentment. Happiness. From his head to his toes, Haddad was pressed against him, spooning him, only their sleeping bags separating their bodies.

His eyes popped open. Shit. At least it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been: their bodies uncovered, pressed together, uncomfortable truths exposed against bellies and thighs. He ached. God, he hadn’t woken with morning wood in weeks. Now, in a cave in Afghanistan, his body was acting up? He tried to edge away, slip from Haddad’s hold.

“Five more minutes,” Haddad mumbled.

Kris froze. Haddad must be dreaming still, lost in his memories of home and the sweet American girlfriend. “What?”

“It’s what I told my mom every morning. When I was in high school.” Kris felt Haddad’s smile, the shift of his beard on the back of his neck. His sleepy breaths, his soft voice.

He shivered. “Sergeant, we need to get up.”

“You can call me David.” Haddad swallowed. “If you want. We usually drop rank when we’re operating in-country. Try to blend in. Use our first names only.”

Kris tried, he really tried, to control his breathing. Keep from hyperventilating. His body ached, straining against melting back into Haddad’s—David’s—hold again. “You can call me Kris, then. Kris with a K.”

“I like your name. It fits you.”

“Do you prefer David or Dawood?”

David was quiet for a long moment. “They’re two different people. I’m David now.” His breath caught, hitching against Kris’s neck. “But I like the way you say it.”

“Joking about my accent?” He was as American as New York City, as Coney Island and heat baking off the asphalt in Lower Manhattan. His mamita’s accent was as thick as the day she’d flown out of Puerto Rico. He, however, had been socialized on cartoons and New York streets. His accent was sass and snark, with just a dusting of his mamita, a touch of island.

“I had an accent when we moved from Libya. The kids made fun of me. I spent all summer getting rid of it.” David’s voice changed, shifted. Went flat and nasal, his sound dropping to the back of his throat. “I was ashamed to be who I was. I had to change everything I could.”

David’s body burned through the sleeping bag, everywhere they were pressed together. They hadn’t moved, not even an inch. “I know what you mean,” Kris whispered.

David’s breath fluttered against Kris’s hair, his jawline. The azan faded, the muezzin’s caterwauling finally finished.

“I think that’s the first bad muezzin I’ve ever heard.” David chuckled. “Usually they’re chosen for their voice.”

“He sounds like he wants to be doing it as much as we want to be hearing him.”

“Let’s win this war so he can give his duties to another muezzin.”

“Sounds good.” Kris laughed and felt David squeeze him, just slightly, an almost hug. He didn’t know if he should hug back, wrap his arms around David’s, hold on to his hold. Or pretend it never happened? What if he was misreading it? What if that was just a stretch, and not a hug at all?

David let go, rolling back and sighing, stretching on the cushions Khan had provided. They were softer than the ground, but lumpier. Kris’s hips ached as he rolled over. “How’s your back?”

“Stiff. But it’s nothing like training. I’m good.” David smiled. “I can go another hundred miles. And you can add another hundred pounds to the pack.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Just a little.” David winked, and then peeled himself out of the sleeping bag. They’d slept in their clothes, added layers of warmth, and David readjusted as he stood and stretched.

Kris watched it all, the ache in his body growing. David caught his gaze, blushed, and looked away. “I’m going to check on what’s happening out there.” He slipped out of the cave.

Groaning, Kris dropped his head, rolling over and face-planting into his sleeping bag. His promises to be distant were growing thinner every day. Every moment he spent with David.

It was one more thing to add to the guilt pile, the avalanche of shame rolling through him…


Timestamp: Whisper, Chapter 6, Excerpt

 

May is for Maudlin… and Mike

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

I’ve moved to an every other week format for now, as I’m trying to wrap up Whisper and launch it soon. 🙂

And, in that vein, here is a Byte about how Mike & Kris met, courtesy of Gloria! Happy Reading!


 

 

Kris spotted him the moment he walked into the bar.

 

Everyone saw him enter. Head turned, men craning to catch sight of what had stopped their friend or their partner or their conquest in mid-sentence.

 

Sandy hair, swept back in a soft pompadour. Broad shoulders, wrapped in a tight t-shirt, a breezy button down open on top. Khaki shorts, and long, tan legs, corded with muscle. He was folding his sunglasses, dark aviators, and hunt them from his neckline.

 

Good. Not swung around the back of his head like an animal. Kris smiled and swirled his Cosmo. Fresh meat didn’t walk through the doors that often. This would be hilarious.

 

From his perch at one of the tables near the back of the Tap Room, Kris watched men fall over themselves at the bar top, making room for the blond stranger. Two twiggy men bracketed him immediately, coy smiles and cocked head and jutting hips.

 

Blond Stranger smiled. Thanked them. God, he had dimples, two perfect indentations in his cheeks. Perfect teeth, too. Kris saw one man at the bar bite his fist, another turn away.

 

He rolled his eyes. Let the feeding frenzy begin.

 


 

He’d reeled in and then cut loose a lobbyist, a silver fox who worked for a sustainable development and humanitarian aid organization. He was cute, and charming, and he wanted to take Kris home and devour him, he’d said, spend an hour with his face between Kris’s legs before working his way north.

 

Tempting. Very tempting.

 

But, he wasn’t feeling it. It was May, and he was always more maudlin in May. More cutting, more distant. More everything.

 

More alone, most especially.

 

He didn’t want the lobbyist to spend an hour between his legs, make him moan and writhe and scream. He wanted to drink, and he wanted to go home and sit in the dark. Look out his windows at the Capitol, revisit old ghosts.

 

He’d let loose the lobbyist, demurring and demurring until he finally had to push, telling him no, it was a definite no.

 

There was no pouting like gay pouting, especially a man denied what he thought was a closed deal. The lobbyist flounced off with a blistering insult. Kris toasted his back as he stalked away.

 

“I was hoping he’d leave.”

 

Kris whirled. Somehow, Blond Stranger was playing darts, alone, at a board hanging on the back wall. Where were his admirers, the twinks to hang off his sculpted biceps? The bees flocking to his honey, sitting like a peanut gallery or a personal applause section? Kris’s gaze darted around the bar. A few older men were still watching Blondie, but the flocks of admirers had waned.

 

“Where’s your entourage?”

 

Blondie frowned. “What entourage?” He threw a dart at the board. Almost dead center. He took a pull from his beer, effortlessly masculine chic.

 

Kris’s stomach clenched. “You cause quite a stir when you walked in. I thought some of the guys at the bar were going to come in their pants.”

 

Blondie laughed, ducked his head. A blush stained his temples, the edge of his cheekbones. “Everyone here has been very nice.”

 

“Mmmhmm.” Kris sipped his Cosmo. “How many BJs have you been offered?”

 

“Four.” The blush was growing. Blondie gave him a side eye, lining up for his next dart.

 

“I am not offering you a blow job.” Kris snorted. Blondie laughed, pulled back to throw. “You can offer me one, though.”

 

And, miss. The dart embedded in the dark wood of the bar, three feet off the board. And further, and he would have git the glass window.

 

Kris arched both eyebrows sky high. He smirked.

 

Blondie laughed, hard, and grabbed his beer. He sauntered to Kris’s table, all confidence and golden skin and tight muscles. Held out one hand. “I’m Mike. I’m new in town.”

 

“I know you’re new in town.” Kris sipped his Cosmo. He didn’t shake Mike’s hand.

 

“Are you the resident fairy godmother? Know everyone in the land?” Mike’s eyes twinkled, even though he pulled back his hand.

 

“More like the wise old hag,” Kris purred. “I’m not one’s fairy anything. But I do know everyone that is anyone in Gay DC, and you, honey, are not on my lists.”

 

“I would not call you old.” Mike leaned against the tabletop, smiling a mile wide. God, he was good. He was smooth. He was already at Kris’s table, already bantering, and Kris was smiling back at him, like a God damn fool. “So, list keeper. What do I need to do to get admitted to the Gay DC scene?”

 

“Your little entrance today made a splash. People will be talking about you for at least a day, maybe a day and a half.”

 

“A full day and a half?” Mike choked back high laughter as he drained his beer. He stared at Kris, smiling wide. Damn it, but those dimples were back. Something fluttered in Kris’s chest, something he once called his heart, or his feelings. Once, he’d had a man look at him like that, and his entire soul had come undone.

 

Kris’s stomach twisted, yanked. Echoes of the past blurred with the present. Mike, smiling at Kris, and then in a blink, there was another man standing in the same spot, his smile just as beautiful, just as perfectly tuned to Kris. Darker, with brown hair instead of blond.

 

Echoes. They were just echoes. Kris down the rest of his Cosmo, one long drag, and set down his Martini glass. Tome to go.

 

“Can I buy you another?” Mike, again, smiling at him. “I’d love to know what it would take to get into your scene.” He grinned, irrepressible, and bit the corner of his lower lip.

 

“Oh God.” Kris groaned. “Honey, this scene is closed.”

 

Mike’s wild flirtation dimmed. “Married? Partnered?” He backed up, respectfully.

 

Kris swallowed, slowly. The tan line on his ring finger had disappeared. “No,” he said softly. “Neither. Not anymore.”

 

Mike stared him down, looking at Kris as if he was peering over glasses perched on his nose.

 

“You’re too young for me, sweetie.” Kris grabbed his jacket.

 

“One drink. Just one.” Mike held up his hands. “This is the best conversation I’ve had all evening here. Can I buy you one drink and just chat?” He shrugged. “Maybe you can give me some pointers about DC?” He bit his lip again.

 

Kris sighed. He wilted. Dropped his jacket. “One. A Cosmo. Grey Goose.”

 

Nodding, Mike scampered off to the bar. The bartender almost broke a leg hurrying to fill his order, and he craned his neck to try and see who Mike was ordering for. His jaw dropped when he saw Kris.

 

Kris pulled out a cigarette and lit it, blowing smoke over his head. Something was shaking inside of him, something trembling that he wanted to stop. It was May. He was supposed to go home, be alone.

 

Sure, there were similarities. A few on the surface.

 

More, inside. If he dug, he could find them, he was sure. The echoes were there. He closed his eyes. David. I miss you every single day.

 

“One Cosmo, as requested.” Mike set his Martini down in front of him, grabbed a seat and slid it beside Kris. He sat with his beer and held his drink out for a toast.

 

True to his word, Mike kept the conversation to questions about DC, about the gay life in the capital, about Kris’s friends and who were good people versus people to avoid. One drink turned into two, and Kris’s cutting sarcasm and hot takes turned into open laughter, especially after he asked Mike about his past, where he’d come from. How had someone like him appeared in DC? Mike kept him laughing about West Virginia, moonshine, and the tribulations of a gay boy in rural America, trying to read signs in between shotguns and rattlesnakes, sneaking kisses in the back of bars and sneaking out of hotel rooms in nothing but a cowboy hat.

 

The crowds thinned, dwindled. Midnight turned to one AM. Kris stared at Mike’s profile, sucking down his third beer. Could he—

 

“Can I take you to brunch tomorrow?” Mike smiled, again, God, he was always smiling. Did anything get him down?  

 

“Mike…”

 

“I’ve got to start making friends somewhere.” Mike shrugged. “I like you. I like this. I want to see you again.” This time, his smile was different, more hopeful.

 

He took his time answering, spinning his empty Martini glass. “I don’t date. Ever.”

 

Mike blinked.

 

“I fuck.” He shrugged. “You’re too young to be my type though, hon. And you…” He sighed. “You’re looking for someone, aren’t you?”

 

Mike nodded. He was quiet, for a moment. “I’ve done my share of one nights and sneaking around. I want something real.”

 

“I’m not the man for you, then.”

 

Mike smiled. “But can I still take you to brunch? If you’re free?”

 

Kris chuckled, shaking his head. “You are impossible.”

 

“I like to be with friends. Eleven AM work for you? You can pick the place?”

 

He shook his head. No one had worked this hard to connect with him, not in years. Most men ran at the third slicing insult. His one-night stands felt the door hit them on the way out, for the most part. Only one man had worked his way past Kris’s armor, since David’s—

 

It was May. And he was supposed to be alone. But…

 

“I’ll meet you at Café Alexander at eleven.”

 

Maybe one friend wouldn’t hurt.

 

Mike beamed.

 


Timestamp: May 2013. Five years after David’s death.

 

I Want it To Be Me – Mike’s POV from Hush, Ch. 14

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, I’m writing a Byte from Hush that Maria requested: Can we see what was going on with Mike during Chapter 14 in Hush? Why did he push Tom away? What was going through his mind?

Great prompt, Maria! <3


 

Mike stared at his coffeemaker. Each dark drop dribbled into the carafe, steam and gurgles belching from the dingy white plastic machine. He’d carted it from the Navy to West Virginia to DC. It was a piece of shit, nothing fancy like Silvio’s chrome and stainless steel espresso maker, but it was reliable.

 

God, he needed coffee. After being up the entire night, tossing and turning, he wasn’t going to get through the day.

 

Thoughts of Tom consumed him.

 

He should never, ever have said yes to dinner.

 

Damn his curiosity. Damn him for wondering. Damn him for wanting. Damn him for even getting friendly with the man. He’d been distant for months. Judge Brewer was just a judge. Why did he even have to go there? Why did he have to get friendly? Dinner… drinks… What the hell had he been thinking?

 

Damn Kris, too. How dare Kris push him toward Tom, when he didn’t even have the guts to follow through on his own love life. How dare Kris push him to seek his happiness, the man of his dreams, his prince charming, when Kris slept his way through half of DC, and ignored the one man who actually wanted something more with him. If Kris was exempt from the game of love, then why wasn’t Mike? Why couldn’t he go just back to his carousel of men, his night after night of GrindMe and bars?

 

Exhaling, he rested his forehead on his arms, closing his eyes as the coffeemaker gurgled.

 

And, God damn Silvio, too, for fucking a man in his kitchen and making him rip it all out. Making him brew his coffee in his bathroom, like a fucking Neanderthal.

 

Why did he even care about Silvio’s betrayal that much? They’d barely been a couple, in hindsight. Silvio working so much, dashing around the country and spending the night in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans. How long had he been cheating, really? Had he ever been faithful?

 

Damn it. That’s why he cared.

 

That’s why he wanted to get off the carousel of ass.

 

He wanted that one man, that one special man. Someone he could cherish, and who cherished him.

 

He wanted Prince Charming.

 

Why did he have to be Tom Brewer?

 

Tom fucking Brewer, with his cute smiles and his self-deprecating chuckle and his earnest, almost painful desire to be just and fair. With his lean swimmer’s body, and the way he’d just melted into Mike’s hold, like he’d waited his whole life to be in Mike’s arms. With the way they fit together, so perfectly. From holding him in his arms to holding him in his heart, imagining mornings and evenings together. Shared coffee and playing with Etta Mae.

 

He could be so happy holding Tom on the couch, hands laced together, wiling away the hours talking about their day, about plans for the weekend, or a thousand other things.

 

It only took one weekend to see, to know, deep down inside of him, how they fit together. One dinner. One kiss. One brunch, and one afternoon.

 

The second dinner was a mistake. He’d already known, he’d known Saturday night that they couldn’t pursue this. Why punish himself? Why spend Sunday with Tom? Why take him to his romantic dinner spot, why imagine more? Why kiss him, and kiss him, and feel Tom’s body surge against his own?

 

They just couldn’t do this. They couldn’t start a relationship. He wasn’t going to start anything that would only end in disaster, again. No matter how amazing Tom was, he couldn’t go through with that. Better to have loved and lost, Shakespeare said. But Shakespeare didn’t have to work with the man of his dreams, didn’t have to face him day in and day out.

 

What would happen, if they tried? Tom would blossom. He would bloom, a rose in mid-summer bursting with glory. He would find himself, and all the joy he’d denied himself for years.

 

That would take him away from Mike.

 

Why would he want to tie down with Mike, who’d done all that, who’d had the gay twenties, the rollicking great times that single gayhood could be? Why wouldn’t Tom want to experience that freedom, that pride that shot straight to your veins, that joy that you could live your life, love anyone? Why would he want to be tied to Mike through all of that?

 

So, Mike would be left. Tom would grow distant. He’d want more. They’d fight. Tom would want to go out, flirt, get attention. Like from that guy, that asshole at the bar who had slipped Tom his business card. Jesus, Tom was probably going to call him, probably going to end up kissing him, too.

 

His hands clenched, arms shaking. Christ, he didn’t want to think about Tom with another man.

 

But it was bound to happen. It was just bound to happen.

 

Better to never start something than watch it slowly die, watch him lose the man of his dreams inch by inch.

 


 

Hey you. 🙂 Haven’t seen you yet today. Miss you.

 

He knew the text would come eventually. He just didn’t think it would feel like a punch to his gut.

 

Mike chewed his lip as he stared at the screen, struggling for something to say back to Tom. He was in the stacks, in the rows and rows of case files and folders at US Marshals headquarters, chasing old threats and going over long-dead prison chatter. Hiding, that’s what he was doing. He was hiding.

 

He had to kill this with Tom. He had to kill it before it got out of control, grew a life of it’s own. Before he fell any harder for the man.

 

[At headquarters. Reviewing threat assessments.]

 

Cold. Nothing like their old texts, when he worried about whether one or two exclamation points was the suave thing to do, to show just enough interest, but not too much.

 

Everything all right?

 

[Yep. Routine stuff.]

 

He waited, and waited, and waited. Waited for what felt like an hour, begging Tom to message back. It wasn’t through, please, not yet. Even though it had to be, God, he didn’t want it to end. He wanted to be in Tom’s office that moment, leaning over his desk, catching his eye, inviting him to lunch. Maybe just shut the door and kiss him all the way through lunch, never let go of his lips. Never stop gazing into those eyes.

 

No. It had to be this way.

 

It could hurt now, or it could hurt so much worse, in the future. When Tom decided to leave him.

 

What did that song say? Had to leave before he got left.

 

The singer made it sound easy.

 

He stared at his silent phone.

 

It wasn’t fair.

 


 

Tuesday evening, he finally headed back to the courthouse. Thank God it was a week he could avoid his office, and didn’t have trial. But he had trial prep, and a thousand other things to do, so he needed to put some hours in at his desk.

 

Just, not around Tom.

 

Tuesdays, Tom taught at Georgetown, so he was guaranteed to not see him.

 

Or so he thought.

 

Tom silhouetted his door, a portrait of practiced neutrality, a lawyer’s perfect poise. Save for those eyes. Pools of burnt hurt, the color of coffee they could have brewed together on lazy weekends, the color of Rock Creek Park and the dirt beneath Etta Mae’s paws. A life he could have had.

 

“What are you doing here? I thought you were teaching?”

 

Tom almost hid his flinch. “Left my phone on accident. Thought it might be important that I had it.”

 

He heard what Tom didn’t say. He was waiting for texts. Hoping for texts. From Mike? Or from someone else? Had he already moved on?

 

He couldn’t do this. “I’ll drive you home,” he growled.

 

Tom followed him out to the front of the courthouse. Silence wreathed him, a shadow that Mike couldn’t go near. Tom was untouchable now. He didn’t have a right to his thoughts. To his feelings.

 

The drive was excruciating. If only he had a teleporter. His neck locked, eyes fixed to the road. Don’t look. Don’t look. Temptation sat beside him. He wanted to collapse at every red light, fall sideways into Tom’s lap, tell him he made a mistake, tell him he wanted Tom, even if it was only for a short time. He didn’t want to let him go. He didn’t want to lose Tom. He wanted him back, wanted that weekend to replay, a Groundhog Day weekend for eternity. His fingers clenched his steering wheel, so hard, so tight, he nearly tore the leather.

 

He pulled up to the curb at Tom’s house.

 

“I’d invite you in, but…”

 

I want to come into your life, Tom. I want to be your partner. I want to be your everything. I do.

 

“But I take it that’s not going to happen again. Ever.”

 

He looked away. Stared across the street. If he looked at Tom, if he looked at him even from the corner of his eye, he’d collapse.

 

“Whatever happened, I’m sorry, Mike. I honestly never expected anything. I knew I wasn’t your type. I shouldn’t have…” Tom sighed.  

 

You are everything I want. Everything, Tom. 

 

“I’m sorry this has ended our friendship. I really, really do think you’re great.” Tom’s voice went tight. “You’re going to make some guy the happiest man on the planet someday. He’s a lucky man.”

 

Mike nearly tore his steering wheel off. I want him to be you.

 

Tom slid from the car. He turned back to Mike—

 

No, he couldn’t look.

 

Mike slammed on the gas and squealed away, up the block.

 

Someday, you’re going to give some man your heart, Tom. I’m already jealous of him. And I want to be him, so fucking much.  

 

He got three blocks before he collapsed against the steering wheel at the red light, and the sobs he’d pushed back since Sunday night finally burst free.

 

He sat in the wash of red light and fought against turning around, rushing back, pounding on Tom’s door until he opened, and Mike could hold him, kiss him again. Even if it was just for one more time.

 

No. Tom needed this. He needed to be free. He needed to live. He needed to be proud, and open. Not tied to Mike like an anchor.

 

The light changed to green.

 

Mike drove forward.

 


Timestamp: Hush, Chapter 14, Mike’s POV

 

Excerpt from Kris’s Novel – Whisper

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, you’re getting another excerpt from Kris’s novel…. as well as the title! Kris’s novel will be called Whisper.

I’m playing this one close to the vest, keeping most excerpts and details under wraps. I am crossing all of my fingers and toes for a late March/Early April release!

Enjoy this excerpt of Kris’s forthcoming novel, Whisper


 

Islamabad, Pakistan

March 29th, 2002

 

The web stretched across an entire wall in the CIA station. Spindly lines crisscrossed each other, tracing points back to the dead center.

Someone had drawn a reticle around the photo in the center. A black marker sniper’s scope circled the black and white passport photo of a thin, young Saudi with a close-cropped beard and mustache and his hair hidden under a neat keffiyeh.

Abu Zahawi.

CIA headquarters said he was Al Qaeda’s third highest officer, third in command after Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He’d been the external emir, the high commander, of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, before the invasion. The Khaldan camp was where the hijackers were trained, where Bin Laden regularly visited. Where all high ranking Al Qaeda operatives transited.

They needed Zahawi.

And they would have him. Tonight.

 


 

In January, Kris, George, and the rest of their combined CIA-Special Forces team stepped out of a helicopter in Islamabad and started fighting the CIA’s next war.

 “We have a new position at the CIA,” Bill, Islamabad’s Chief of Station, had told them all during their first briefing. “Targeteer. These guys are going to be the most important people in the agency. They’re hunters. Anything and everything we get on a high value target gets routed straight to their desk. The targeteers package all of that intel together. Make sense of it. And then they find our targets.” Bill thought fast and spoke fast, and his eyes peered around the room, dancing over each person on the team. “It’s part forensic psychology, part jigsaw puzzle, part sifting through haystacks, and part voodoo. You’ve got to be a cultural anthropologist, a translator, a psychologist, and a psychic. So. Who is going to be the targeteer on this team?”

George hadn’t hesitated. “Kris Caldera. That’s made for him.”

Bill’s stare had pierced Kris, a laser burning right through him. He had a thick stack of folders on the table in front of him stuffed with CDs and DVDs, papers and photos. Bill pushed it all toward Kris. “Here’s your first target. Abu Zahawi. He’s in Pakistan. And we have to find him.”

“He’s in Pakistan” turned out to be the agency’s most popular line. Everyone was in Pakistan, from Bin Laden to the most minor Al Qaeda recruit, and they were supposed to find every last one of them. Pakistan was the size of Texas but had the population of the United States. Karachi was the fourth largest city in the entire world. Finding anyone in the crushing mass of humanity, much less someone purposefully hiding, was a near impossible task.

Zahawi’s name, and about a dozen phone numbers associated with him, kept coming up in documents and debris and pocket recovered in Afghanistan, from destroyed Al Qaeda camps, captured fighters, and picked off the dead. From Marines and soldiers, combing through the remains of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to Islamabad, hordes and hordes of information flowed.

Not all of it was intelligent. There was just too much of it, too many bits and pieces and names and addresses scattered across thousands of leads.

Kris nearly buckled.

Palmer’s men hit the streets, going to Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi, trying to scour the cities with a small passport photo, searching for Zahawi like they could pick him from the millions and millions of people crowding the streets. David came back from each trip frustrated and filthy, and always exhausted.

“I need more resources,” Kris said, at the end of January. “I can’t make a man appear with nothing but luck.”

“What do you need?”

“Give me an entire electronic net over Pakistan. Zero in on the numbers we have of known Al Qaeda agents. The phone numbers connected to Zahawi. If anyone calls those, who do they call after that, and then after that, and then after that. We need to build a web.”

The invisible electronic net dropped. Calls were vacuumed up, scrubbed and searched for names and keywords. When calls to Zahawi’s known numbers didn’t connect, America’s digital eyes tracked the calls they made next, asking for instruction, and then again, and again. Everything went on the wall, a giant web of connections, of unrelated people trying to live in hiding, exposed by the pattern of their phone calls.

Finally, they found Zahawi’s new numbers.

Zahawi had fourteen new numbers tied to fourteen locations. Thirteen in Faisalabad, the third most populous city in Pakistan, and situated far from the Afghanistan border, south of Islamabad. One in Lahore, a city almost on the Indian border.

They hit the streets again, winding through the tangled, twisted alley and dirt roads of Faisalabad. Faisalabad was a rough, dangerous, and hopelessly poor city. A never-ending sprawl of mudbrick homes and open sewage, neighborhood dump lots, and precarious slums. Children played in raw sewage. The stench of rot slipped under their clothes, into their nose, down their throat, gagging them all. Cars and rickshaws and bicycles and donkeys and camels crowded every inch of the roadways. Walkers glided in and out of traffic lanes and passed angry cabbies shouting in thirteen different languages.

Most people living in Faisalabad lived on less than five dollars a day. And most were fierce adherents to a firebrand fundamentalist Islam, married to a violent rage. Life in Faisalabad was epically shitty. Why not desperately wish to turn to the past, to the golden days of Islam, when life was vibrant, peaceful, and Muslims were regarded as the enlightened intellectuals of the world? Why not crave that historical power again? Everything to blame in Faisalabad was the West’s fault, anyway. For putting them at the bottom of the world order.

Going into Faisalabad meant working undercover. David and his team dressed in salwar kameezzes, breezy tunics and linen pants. They’d kept their thick beards from Afghanistan. David blended in the best, with his bronze skin and his native Arabic, and he played the part of a foreign fighter working the streets. He was the point man for all of Kris’s operations.

Kris watched David take to the mission like a fish to water, seamlessly blending into the passion Islamic fundamentalism. Even there, even in Faisalabad. David moved like he knew how to live in a city on the edge, under the thumb of oppression and desperate poverty. There was something there, something Kris wanted to ask about, but couldn’t. Not yet.

Kris, slender, even with his added muscles from the war in Afghanistan, played the part of the wife. He donned the head to toe black hijab. He tied the niqab around his face, peered out of the narrow eye slit, and kept his body hidden from view under the sweep of black. His hijab collected filth from the streets as he swept over puddles of sewage, walked up and own dusty alleys. To add to the disguise, Kris lined his eyes with kohl, like the local women did.

David couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Kris and David walked the streets as if they were married, scoping out all thirteen properties. They found squat mudbrick homes, small one-room huts with corrugated tin roofs, and shacks on the edge of slums. Hatred seethed from the slum, like a physical pulse.

“We can’t take the entire slum. But there are Al Qaeda fighters in there, for sure.”

“Zahawi is the target. We have to find him.

The last location was a large house, almost a villa, built of concrete cinderblocks instead of mud bricks. Three stories and surrounded by an eight-foot-tall privacy fence. Every window was closed and shuttered. In the sweltering one-hundred-degree heat and humidity, that stood out. That stood out like an electric sign in the sky, pointing straight down. All of Faisalabad had thrown open their doors and windows, trying to cool down with the limp, rotten breeze.

All of Faisalabad, save for them.

“Bad news in there.” David leaned into Kris’s hijab.

Sweat poured down Kris’s back. He was roasting, nearly passing out under the hijab. “No one keeps their windows closed. Not in this heat.”

“Let’s get back to the safehouse.”

George had rented a safehouse in Faisalabad, paying cash for a villa in the wealthy sector of town. The mansion had fourteen bedrooms, twelve sitting rooms, and a huge plot of land, surrounded by a giant fence that kept all curious onlookers far away. From the roof, they had satellite connections with fourteen different communications relays, from the CIA to the military. The team lived in the safehouse and rotated surveillance on each of Zahawi’s locations.

A backup team from Langley was sent in, too, to help share the load. They arrived while David and Kris were scoping out the villa.

“Kris!” Richard Wright, Kris’s mentor at Langley, jogged to him when they returned to the safehouse and wrapped Kris up in a hug, holding on for longer than Kris had expected. “God, it’s good to see you again.”

They caught up that night, on the roof. Richard had brought three bottles of wine, and he and Kris downed a bottle of shitty chardonnay as they sat in lawn chairs and tried to breathe through their mouths, tried to not smell the fetid stench of Faisalabad.

“You blew the door open, Kris.” Richard held out his plastic cup of white wine for a toast. “You blew the door for all us gays open. Going to Afghanistan… and kicking ass.”

Kris’s jaw had dropped. “Us gays? Richard?”

“I entered the CIA before you. When it was still not allowed.”

It was only 1996 that the law had been changed, allowing homosexuals to legally possesses security clearances. Prior to 1996, any gay man or woman was considered a liability, someone who could be blackmailed, someone untrustworthy. Someone not allowed into the hallowed halls of the national security establishment.

“I loved that you never played the bullshit games.” Richard smiled at him, his eyes bright. Glowing. “You never tried to hide. I wanted to help you. Wanted to see you succeed. And, God damn. Did you ever.”

“I just did my job.”

“You did a hell of a job. You’re a fantastic officer, Kris. And you’re paving the way for everyone after you. No one thinks twice anymore about us.”

“You going to come out?”

Richard had smiled at him, over the rim of his cup. “If there was someone to come out for.”

Kris froze.

“I always wanted to ask you to dinner, Kris. Back in DC. I always want to get to know you better.” He leaned forward, fiddling with his wine. “Maybe, after this is over, we could try? The Marriott in Islamabad isn’t the Capitol Grille in DC, but…” Richard had smiled, hope tumbling from him. “I just really want to spend some time with you.”

“Richard…” Kris had squeezed his eyes closed, had leaned forward. His head hung between his slumped shoulders. “Richard, I’m sorry. I’m seeing someone.”

Shock pushed Richard back. “Oh. I didn’t know. I thought you were single, in DC—”

“I was.” Kris cringed. “It’s… new.”

“In Afghanistan?” Richard’s jaw dropped.

“It’s secret. We’re not out. We’re—” Kris fumbled for words, stumbling over his exhaustion and the wine.

“He’s military.” Richard nodded slowly, exhaling. He stared into his cup of wine like he was divining tea leaves. “I understand. I do.” He sighed. “Whoever he is, he’s a lucky guy.” Richard smiled. “I hope we can still be friends.”

“I’d like that.”

 


 

The night before the raid, he and David lounged in a tepid bath surrounded by stubby candles. The safehouse had sunken mosaic tubs in most bedrooms, playthings for the wealthy who lived stratospheres above the rest of the city’s inhabitants. David rubbed his feet, massaged his legs, kissed his way up and down Kris’s body. They made love silently, Kris riding David as his hands traced David’s chest, his body, mapped the terrain of his lover. Candlelight flickered over their skin, threw shadows against the walls. Kris came with a muffled cry, his head thrown back, David’s hands clinging to him, his arms wrapped around his back. David’s lips kissed every inch of his chest.

Their teammates were on either side of the paper-thin walls. Kris could hear their laughter, their conversations, between his gasps, his muffled cries.

Who knew about them? George, for sure. Had he told Ryan? Ryan was still his deputy. Jim and Philip were oblivious, wrapped up in their own projects. Derek had stayed in Afghanistan. Jackson? He was David’s roommate, and David spent all his time in Kris’s. What did Jackson think about his vacant partner? And Palmer? He’d seen them kissing, back in Tora Bora. But David had become distant from his team since moving to Pakistan, moving with Kris and on the ground instead of holding surveillance and going on night raids, like the others.

They weren’t supposed to be doing this. David’s entire career could come apart, shatter under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rules of the military.

Sleeping with a partner on an overseas mission happened, but it was generally filed under “ill advised” by the CIA and “disastrous” when it went all wrong.

It was illegal to be gay in Pakistan. Illegal to love another man. They were in Pakistan on diplomatic cover, but the bond between Pakistan and the United States was tenuous, a daily negotiation of threats and bluster. A scandal like this, that Pakistan could use to claim the US disrespected their culture, their laws, and flagrantly violated their beliefs, could tear their alliance apart.

And, for the first time, Kris had some measure of respect. Richard’s words haunted him, repeating in his mind on an echoing loop. His name was said with praise. People believed in him. Thought he could do something. That he wasn’t just a fag or a puff, a limp-wristed gay that people put up with. His whole life, he’d been treated like half a man.

Until now.

But for how long? Should they stop? Should they just put it aside, focus on their mission? They were risking too much, with this.

But he couldn’t. He couldn’t set David aside, couldn’t put him out of his mind. David had become linked to him, inextricably linked, like two stars orbiting each other. Words like “combat stress” and “adrenaline bonds” tried to nip at him from the darkness, but he pushed them back.

David was in his bones, in his blood. In his soul. He lived the rhythms of their days, set his heart by the moments he stole with David. He’d never let that go, not unless David was ripped from him. And even then—

David held him after they finished, cradling Kris close with his forehead pressed to Kris’s temple as they caught their breath. Sticky Pakistani heat clung to their sweaty skin. A limp ceiling fan circled overhead, lazy circles that moved stale air and the stench of sex. Could their teammates smell what they did? Could they smell David on Kris, like Kris always could?

Much later, Kris pulled the curtains back and stared out their bedroom window. He’d wrapped up in a silk robe, a gift David had bought for him during one of his undercover trips into Pakistan’s twisting cities. He’d bought Kris a small mountain of gifts since they’d arrived in country. Silk shirts and linen suits, long robes, and the finest salwar kameezzes in all of Pakistan. A gold necklace, a filigree of the Hand of Fatima, that he wore under everything, every day. Now that they weren’t in Afghanistan and weren’t in combat any longer, they got to change their clothes every day, actually look decent again. David, it seemed, had taken it upon himself to make Kris’s wardrobe the finest in all of Pakistan. Kris reveled in David’s gifts, in the luxury. In the knowledge that every day, no matter where David was, Kris was on his mind.

David stood behind him, kissing his bare shoulder where the robe slipped down. The call to prayer sounded, the wail of a hundred muezzins across the city rising as one. There were no stars above Faisalabad, no moon in the sky. The stars were spread below, a blanket of lanterns and fires that turned the air to wood smoke and musk.

Across Faisalabad, somewhere in the darkness and the smoke, Abu Zahawi prayed. His last prayers as a free man.

 


 

“In three hours, we leave the safe house in our breach teams. At zero one thirty, each breach team will stage outside their target location.” Kris pointed to the giant map on the wall, with each of the fourteen targets marked and surrounded by surveillance photos. “Pakistani police will meet you at each target.”

An FBI agent, from a team that had been flown in from DC overnight, interrupted. “Is Pakistani ISI involved?”

“No. ISI has not been briefed.” Pakistan’s military intelligence, ISI, had been caught leaking information to Al Qaeda, both during the Afghan invasion and after. Kris kept them iced out of his entire operation. The FBI agent, jet lagged and clinging to a mug of coffee after sunset, nodded.

“At exactly zero one fifty, each breach team will stage at the outer breach marker for each site. Your team leads have your specific coordinates for your site in their packet. At precisely zero two hundred, at all fourteen sites, we breach simultaneously. The order of entry is as follows: The Pakistani police enter first and subdue any resistance. They separate the women and children form the men. The FBI enters second and preserves the scene for evidence collection. The CIA enters last.”

The FBI, appraised of Kris’s operation to catch Zahawi, had insisted on inserting into the takedown team. The September 11th attacks were considered an active criminal investigation in addition to being an intelligence failure and the new target of an independent Congressional oversight investigation. Jurisdiction was overlapping, and messy.

“I and my team—” Kris nodded to Richard, David, Ryan, Jackson, and Palmer. “—will accompany the breach team at Target X-Ray.” The last target on the list, the villa he and David had found with the windows closed and locked.

“You think Zahawi is at that location?”

“We think there’s something bad going on there, yes. It could be Zahawi. It could be another cell of Al Qaeda fighters. Whatever is going on, it’s bad news.” Kris, standing on a coffee table in the middle of the safe house’s living room, met everyone’s gaze. Nearly sixty people stared back at him. Listened to him give orders. “Any questions?”

 


 

Zero one fifty-five.

They were well into zero dark hundred, the dead of night when Special Forces loved to operate, when the CIA always made their moves. Kris breathed through his mouth, huddled against the privacy fence around Target X-Ray, behind David and in front of Richard. Ryan and Jackson brought up the rear of their breach team.

His body armor tried to pull his shoulders off. The thick ceramic plates weighed at least forty pounds each. He felt tugged toward the ground, like he should just lower tip forward, let gravity do its thing.

Zero one fifty-six. At thirteen other sites, breach teams were waiting, following Kris’s plan to the letter. There was no room for error in this. No room for one team to strike early, give a target time to make a phone call, or start screaming, or worse, shooting. In Faisalabad in the middle of the night, only the dogs were out. The city was silent, five million people locked in their houses. Unless something went wrong.

Zero one fifty-eight. The check came down the line. All good? David reached behind him, tapped the side of Kris’s leg. All good. He sent the signal back, tapping Richard. Heard Richard reach for Ryan. Then it came back, two taps from Richard on his thigh. All good. He reached forward for David. David intercepted his hand. Squeezed. Kris squeezed back.

Zero one fifty-nine. They’d synchronized their watches to the second. He watched them count down.

Three. Two. One.

Pakistani police at the head of the breach team blew open the lock on the privacy fence and wrenched the heavy metal gate open. Boots slapped concrete and dirt, thundering toward the front door. Kris heard echoes of booms across Faisalabad, bouncing through the warren of mudbrick and concrete homes. He followed behind, running with David and stacking at the fence line as the Pakistani’s prepared to break down the front door. Shouts rose inside the villa. Lights flicked on in the third floor.

Clang. The Pakistan police officer who’d swung the battering ram stumbled backward. Another rushed forward, grabbing the battering ram and trying again. Clang. “It’s reinforced!” he shouted. “They reinforced the door with steel!”

Slap slap slap. Dirt shot up from the ground, geysers from bullets slamming into the dust at their feet. Glass shattered, rained down on their heads. Dark muzzles, the bores of AK-47s, poked out of the upstairs windows.

“Take cover!” David grabbed Kris and hauled him around the side of the house, away from the windows and the shooters above. Ryan and Richard retreated behind the privacy fence.

“Grenade!” One of the Pakistani police officers shouted. A thud bounced and rolled, inside the house. Frantic Arabic, shouts that rose in pitch, until—

Boom.

Scrambling, David poked around the house’s corner, looking down the barrel of his rifle. The shooters in the upper windows were gone. Pakistani police officers were going through a ground level window into a smoke-filled hallway.

“Open this door! Open this fucking door!” Two FBI agents banged on the front door, their backs flat to the wall. They’d been trapped on the other side of the gunfire from above, totally exposed.

The front door burst out of its frame, kicked open by the largest Pakistani police officer on the team. Cursing, the FBI agents ran inside. “Hands up! Hands up!”

“They have to say it in Arabic,” Kris growled. “Did they forget?”

“We gotta get in there.” David nodded to the front door. “I’ll cover you.”

Kris ran, David following in his footsteps, his rifle trained on the empty third floor windows. Whoever had been shooting at them was gone. For now.

Richard, Ryan, and Jackson met them at the door. Shouts barreled through the house. Flashlight beams crisscrossed the smoke. The FBI agents were stuck in the front room, hollering at someone to put their hands up.

Shouting, again, in Arabic. This time, from outside. Kris turned, back to the outside. “The roof. They’re on the roof!”

David and Jackson flattened themselves to the villa’s wall, looking up their rifle scopes at the roofline.

Scuffling, above. Frantic Arabic flew back and forth. Two, no three, voices.

Kris followed David, holding his weapon up, keeping it steady on the roofline.

Richard covered him, moving close.

Ryan slipped away from the villa’s walls, sliding into the courtyard.

“Hnak hu alan! Ha hu! Ha hu!” There he is now! There he is! There he is!

“Shit!” Bullets peppered the courtyard, the dirt at Ryan’s feet. He ran for the shadows, ducked behind a concrete pillar for cover. The shooter on the roof chased him to the edge.

David slid out of the shadows and squeezed his trigger. Three bullets spat into the night, catching the first man on the roof in the shoulder and jaw. He tumbled forward, limp, spilling over the edge. He hit the ground like a broken doll, head first. Kris looked away, flinching.

He’d remember that sound as long as he lived.

“Qafz! Qafz!” Jump! Jump!

Two men scurried across the roof, heading for the edge. David, Jackson, and Kris stepped over the broken body in the courtyard and followed the sounds. Behind the house, the closest neighbors were nine feet away, across a sewage-filled alley. An improbable jump, but not impossible. Not with adrenaline coursing through the men’s’ veins.

The first man on the roof started to run. They heard his feet slapping against the concrete. Heard him approach the edge. Saw him leap.

David and Jackson fired together, two shots. Both tore through the jumper. Shrieking, he fell to the ground, bones in his legs cracking on impact. He wailed, screams loud enough to wake the dead, knives that sliced through Kris’s eardrums.

The third man had jumped right after his friend, using the distraction to cover his attempt.

Kris saw him. He raised his weapon. Fired.

His shots caught the jumper in his hip and his stomach. He lurched, tumbled, and fell, slamming into the top of the privacy fence before sliding to the ground.

Inside the house, the frantic shouts from the FBI had subsided. They heard boots running up and down the stairs, heard calls of “clear” from within. Heard more boots on the roof, and shouts of “police!”

“Friendlies!” David bellowed. “Friendlies, down below!”

“We heard gunshots. What do have?” One of the FBI agents poked his head over the roof’s edge. He blanched when he saw the first man from the roof spread in a wet mess across the courtyard.

“Three jumpers. All down.” David and Jackson had formed a loose perimeter, keeping all three bodies in sight.

Kris called up, “Zahawi in there?”

“No. Is he one of them?”

“We’re checking.” Kris and Richard ignored the first body. There wasn’t anything left to ID. He didn’t have the right coloring for Abu Zahawi, either. The man who’d tumbled was Pakistani. Zahawi was Palestinian, fair skinned and slender according to the passport photo they were working with.

The second jumper was still shrieking. Blood pooled beneath one of his broken legs. White bone stuck out of his torn pants. Strips of skin clung to the jagged ends of his shattered femur. Richard shined a light into his face.

“Not him.” Kris waved to David. “This one needs a medic. He’s going to bleed out.”

They moved on to the third jumper as David knelt next to the broken-legged man. The third jumper was heavy set with a round belly, thick legs, and wild, springy hair, almost to his shoulders. He was clean shaven, almost as smooth as Kris. Blood smeared across him, from the shots in his belly and his impact with the fence, and his slide to the ground. Pools of ruby liquid formed beneath him, soaking the dirt. His eyes were closed and he didn’t move. Still, they kept their distance.

“This can’t be him.” Richard frowned.

“His jawline looks similar…” Kris reached for the man, turned his head left and right. The man groaned. “I think it’s him. I think it’s Zahawi.”

“How do we know?”

Kris turned the man’s head to the side again and held it still. “Take a picture of his ear. Everyone’s ear is unique. Just like a fingerprint.”

Richard arched an eyebrow at him, but snapped the photo. Kris pulled out his field laptop from his backpack and plugged in the camera. Downloaded the image, and sent it via satellite link to Islamabad. “We’ll know in a minute.”

Sirens blasted across Faisalabad, the Pakistani police coming out in force. Rickshaw ambulances followed behind the police. David, through with putting a tourniquet on the broken legged man, jogged over to Kris. “I thought this one was dead.”

“Not yet.” Kris grabbed his medical kit from his backpack and pulled out a wad of field dressings and gauze bandages. He pressed them into the man’s bullet wounds, over his stomach and his thigh. Blood saturated the dressings, soaking through almost instantly. “We need to keep him alive. This is Zahawi. I’m certain of it.”

His sat phone rang. Richard reached for it. David grabbed it first. “Hello?”

Where’s Caldera?”

“Holding pressure on a wounded Al Qaeda man.”

If it’s the same man who’s ear he just sent, then he’d better do everything he can to keep him breathing. That is Abu Zahawi. And we need him. Alive.”


Timestamp: Chapter 13, Whisper. After the Afghanistan War led by the CIA.

 

Check Yes or No – Jack’s POV before texting Ethan in EOTS

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! This week, Nichole asked for a prompt about Jack’s POV from when Ethan gave him his cell phone number until they started texting. What was going through Jack’s mind? Why did he decide to text Ethan? Great prompt! Thanks, Nichole!

Happy Reading!


 

Jack’s gaze darted to the folder, again.

 

It was just a plain manila folder, one of a dozen, buried beneath the classified intelligence pouch and his daily briefing binder. He’d tossed his tablet on top of the pile sometime after lunch, too. But he could still see the edge of the folder poking out from the bottom of the stack.

 

Mr. President, this is my personal cell phone number. I’ll be fired if anyone finds out I gave this to you. But I’m sorry for what happened at Camp David and I really wish I’d stayed and had that beer with you.

 

A part of him wanted to just shred the folder and Ethan’s phone number along with it. Ethan had been adamant, over and over again, that they weren’t supposed to connect. How awkward was he at the gym those first few days? And, that first weekend at Camp David, after their run?

 

Jack had always been able to take a hint. Ethan had been uncomfortable. Deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

 

But what then was this? If Ethan kept wanting to keep him at arm’s reach, then why reach back for Jack with his phone number? Why be regretful about their missed beer?

 

Was this pity? The poor lonely president, and Ethan was just taking one for the team? Someone had to befriend him before Jack went crazy in the big empty White House, and that someone was Ethan? Had they picked straws for the role of almost-friend of the president?

 

I’ll be fired if anyone finds out I gave this to you.

 

That didn’t sound like pity.

 

Was he a job? Just a job to Ethan, another president that, when it came down to it, needed special handling and kid gloves? So he didn’t throw tantrums and berate the staff, but was he demanding in other ways? Taking too much of Ethan’s personal time?

 

I really wish I’d stayed and had that beer with you.

 

Jack pitched back and sighed, closing his eyes. He was, for the moment, blessedly alone in his office, able to think, to breathe, for a half second. It was the only time he enjoyed the silence of the White House. Moments of peace in the Oval Office were exceedingly rare.

 

Light flitted through the gauze curtains of the Oval Office, dancing across his desk, his pants, his tie. Why had he ever thought running for president would be a good idea? Was pushing his agenda, his vision of a better world, worth it all? What if he’d stayed a Senator? Could he have just pitched bill after bill after bill, trying to legislate change through sweat and discourse?

 

Change started from the top. The president set the course of the nation. Everyone knew that. After too many failed policies, he’d wanted the chance to change the course of history and fate. The first Millennial president, they’d all said, and he wanted to bring the tectonic shift, the earthquake that would reshape politics and America. Weren’t the Millennials always mocked for forcing change onto the world? Well, baby, change is here.

 

Or so he’d thought, lying awake at nights on the campaign trail. Energized, enthused, excited. Dreaming of all that he could do.

 

And he was doing, by the benchmarks that measured a presidency. Bills were being passed. Approval ratings fluctuated din the upper forties to low fifties.

 

But, God, he was exhausted. And achingly, achingly alone at the end of every day. The loneliness teetered on the edge of a depression, a plunging cavern he could step off into, could disappear into. Was it normal that a president felt like he was a half-step from the edge? Did the others feel this way?

 

Other presidents had families, friends. People to help take their mind off the job. Jack felt that he was turning into the job, losing his sense of self, almost. Like he was swirling down the drain, never able to separate from the office, the role.

 

He’d tried to watch a movie in the White House theater once, all alone with his bucket of popcorn. He’d tried to get away from the world, for just an hour and a half. But he’d turned the movie off when the walls seemed to grow, stretching larger and larger until he felt he was disintegrating, disappearing. He was tiny in that room, all alone in the rows and rows of seats. What was he doing there?

 

He’d read another briefing instead.

 

The guys he’d roomed with on Capitol Hill had drifted as soon as he started his presidential run. They didn’t want the association, the drama. And, since the campaigns started so early, he hadn’t actually had that much time to get to know them, between late nights on the Hill, different committee assignments, and the punishing “be there” schedule of politics. You were always on duty, always on shift. “Be there”, or be voted out of office.

 

So was that why he was reaching out to Ethan so much? Ethan was gruff and stiff, almost as stiff as Welby, at least in the beginning. But he had a warm core, and a humanity that ran deep through him. Christmas, and he’d taken care of his fellow officers, staying in while they enjoyed time with their families. He’d worked out with Jack, when that wasn’t at all what he was supposed to do. And he kept working out, going for runs with him at Camp David, lifting weights in the mornings. It was the closest thing to normal human interaction he had, and the closest thing he’d had to friendship, in… years.

 

Except, Ethan was paid to throw his body in front of a bullet to protect Jack. How much an equal friendship was that, really?

 

Groaning, Jack tried to stop his swirling thoughts. He was pathetic. He was a middle-aged man, forty-five years old, and he was waxing poetic about wanting a friend. He was the president, for Christ’s sake. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He needed to get a grip.

 

I really wish I’d stayed and had that beer with you.

 

Damn it. Was it true? Was there any possible way… they could actually be friends? Did Ethan want anything to do with him? He wanted to kick himself for thinking the thought. Should he send Ethan a handwritten note down in Horsepower? Will you be my friend? Check yes or no.

 

Jack pulled out his phone and wiggled Ethan’s folder from the bottom of his pile. He punched Ethan’s digits into his phone. Stared at the screen. What on earth should he say? I think you’re super cool. You’re like a larger than life action hero. Lifting weights with you keeps me sane. Our friendship keeps the world safe. Everyone should thank you for your sacrifice. Want to come over and play? I’ll ask my mom if it’s alright.

 

He was pathetic.

 

Knocking rapped on his door just before Jeff Gottschalk burst in. Jack slipped Ethan’s note out of the folder and hid it in his lap, folding it until he could stuff it in his pocket.

 

“Mr. President, there’s a situation.” Jeff scowled. “We’re picking up Caliphate movement in Iraq. Looks like they’re moving against the northern province. Maybe trying to take another city.”

 

“Get everyone into the Situation Room. We’ve got to deal with this, and we’ve got to put an end to the Caliphate. I’m sick of them.”

 

“Agreed. I’ll have everyone assembled in fifteen minutes, Mr. President.” Jeff ducked out, already putting his cell phone to his ear and talking while emailing someone else on his Blackberry.

 

Jack’s shoulders slumped. His hopes for a quiet evening, and maybe, just maybe, texting Ethan, disappeared.

 

At least for tonight.

 

We’ll have that beer, Ethan. You deserve it, for putting up with me.

 

If they were going to be friends, then Jack had to start doing a better job of being one. He had to do more, for Ethan.

 


Timestamp: EOTS, Chapter 12, Jack’s POV

 

WHAT IF… Jack never ran for president?

 

Welcome back to Bauer’s Bytes, 2018!!

I love to kick off a new year of Bytes with something big, something monumental. Last year, I did Jack’s POV of Sochi, and this year, after bantering around with readers about the idea, I decided to write an alternate universe story. (I feel oddly like I’ve fan-fic’d my own work… 🙂 ) In this universe, Senator Jack Spiers decided NOT to run for president. He stayed in the Senate. How, then were Ethan and Jack supposed to meet? Well, here’s one possible way…

Try and spot the nods to EOTS, and the changes in the timeline. Everything that happened in EOTS happens here, or *tries* to happen. Jack not being president had a cascading array of consequences. See if you can spot them all!

Happy Reading, and welcome to 2018!

 


 

The United States Capitol Rotunda wasn’t made for parties, but that didn’t stop Congress from throwing down, when the time was right.

 

Champagne corks popped and echoed, mini canons of legislative victory. Representatives and Senators, staffers and aides, and, of course, the army of journalists, rubbed shoulders and celebrated, laughing, cheering, hugging, and toasting. Endlessly toasting.

 

Ethan stood at the edge of the Rotunda, holding up a thick marble column. The president was due to arrive in… sixteen minutes. He and Scott had battled for who led the advance team to the Capitol.

 

Ethan had lost.

 

On a giant projector screen over the Rotunda, Senator Jack Spiers’s celebratory victory speech played. Ethan watched with one eye, keeping a roving sweep on the rest of the party.

 

“This legislation celebrates the diversity of America, and America’s long, long history as being a nation of immigrants, of dreamers, of doers, and of people united in a commitment to forge a better way forward for themselves, their families, and for the world. America is more than just a place. More than just lines on a map, borders to be drawn and defined. America is a dream, a hunger. A desire to build a better future, and a better world. There are 330 million Americans today. But there are eight billion potential Americans. Anyone – no matter the color of their skin, the place of their birth, their religion, sex, gender, sexuality, identity, or education – has an opportunity to come to America. To dream of more.” Cheers rose, and applause.

 

“Immigration has long been a challenge for this great nation. There have been dark chapters in our history. Days where we turned away immigrants who sought freedom and safety. Times when America participated in the vile and reprehensible practice of slavery. Those days are gone forever. We will not turn away any human being fleeing the horrors of war, persecution, oppression, or terror. This nation will always and forever be a place of freedom, of safety, of security, and most of all, of hope.

 

“Government alone cannot solve the nation’s problems. We are delighted with this monumental tax cuts and immigration legislation, the America Dreams of the Future Act. Together, with commitments from nearly every major Fortune 500 company, and countless small business and family businesses, we as a nation have committed to providing education, language skills, job training, and technical skills training to both American citizens and to immigrants and refugees to not only succeed in this nation, but to thrive.”

 

The speech continued, and more cheers and applause thundered throughout the Capitol. Senator Spiers had first pitched the legislation over a year before, in the middle of the campaign season. Every candidate, in the primary and then in the general election, had taken a stand on Senator Spiers’s America Dreams of the Future Act. The bill had galvanized the nation, and had been an intense and heated battle on the Hill, consuming both parties. Spiers had persevered, through, getting first Democrats to co-sponsor, and then Republicans.

 

He’d carved a name for himself in American politics. The buzz that he should run for office, after Gutierrez’s four or eight years, was building. There were rumors, even, that he’d almost run against Gutierrez in the primary.

 

Quarterback, this is Grumpy. Leaving Castle and headed to the Punch Bowl. ETA is six minutes. How’s the party?”

 

“Loud. Didn’t know old people could get this rowdy.”

 

C’mon. You know Congress is the professional drinker’s club.”

 

Ethan snorted. “See you in five-forty-five, Grumpy.”

 

He pushed off his column, his silent companion in the madness, and strode across the Rotunda. He had to slide past laughing ladies and chortling old men, aides that obsessively refreshed their phones and the news feeds to see how their Senators and Representatives were trending after the legislation’s signing.

 

Someone screamed. Ethan spun, reaching for his waist. An older woman had her hand to her mouth, staring wide-eyed at a phone screen. A second later she laughed, squeezing her eyes shut.

 

Ethan cursed. Shaking his head, he turned-

 

“Whoa!”

 

“Shit!” Ethan grabbed a pair of flailing arms as he felt something wet drench his button-down, soak into his suit pants. A blur of blond and blue flashed before him. He stepped back.

 

Senator Jack Spiers, holding an empty red wine glass, stared at Ethan, his jaw hanging open. “I am so sorry,” he started. “I thought I could get past you. I’m so sorry. Please, let me replace your shirt, your suit.”

 

Ethan pasted his don’t fuck with me smile on his face. “No need, Mr. Senator. I’ll be all right.”

 

“Please.” Spiers reached for him, stilled his forward march through the crowd. “I insist. This is all my fault.”

 

Three minutes, fifty seconds. Ethan’s gaze darted from the entrance to Spiers and back. He needed to end this conversation. “Senator, it’s not a problem. Truly.”

 

“Whose staff are you on? Who do you work for? I’ll connect with them, we can hammer out the details. But I really insist.” Spiers looked apologetic, truly remorseful.

 

Three minutes, twenty-eight seconds. “I work for the Secret Service, Senator. And I have to go. Now.”

 

Spiers’s expression shifted. “I understand completely. What’s your name?”

 

“Agent Reichenbach, Senator. If you’ll excuse me.”

 

Spiers stepped back. “I’m sorry, Agent Reichenbach.”

 

Ethan gave him a tight, thin smile and marched off.

 

Scott wasted no time at all mocking him when he hopped out of the passenger door of the Beast at the Capitol steps. “What, did you get any in your mouth?”

 

“Shut up. Someone ran into me.”

 

“Is it animal house in there?”

 

“Congress gone wild.” Ethan rolled his eyes.

 

“Let’s just take POTUS home, then.”

 

“I wish.” Ethan reached for the Beast’s back seat door. The perimeter of agents was in place. “All set.”

 

President Juan Gutierrez slid out of the limo, gave Ethan a once over and an eyebrow raise, and smoothly moved on. Ethan nodded for Scott to take point with Gutierrez. “All agents, be advised, Gumdrop is entering Punch Bowl.”

 

Sighing, Ethan leaned back against the warm metal of the Beast. He heard the Capitol cheer, the roar of raucous applause as the president walked in. Heard the Capitol band play a quick riff of Hail to the Chief. This wasn’t official though. This was a celebration, the president enjoying time with Congress after a major bipartisan legislative victory. Some had thought that bipartisanship was dead and gone, a bygone figment of history’s imagination. But Senator Spiers had been committed to resurrecting its weary ghost.

 

And, apparently, the Senator like red wine, and lots of it. That had to have been a full glass. Ethan’s shoes were filled with wine. Every step squeaked. Outside, away from the noise, he could hear the squelch of the wine in his socks, feel the wetness. Perhaps he should have taken Spiers up on his offer for a new suit. This one was ruined for sure. He never had any luck getting red wine out of anything, which was why he didn’t drink it.

 

Oh well. Just another day in DC.

 


 

Agent Reichenbach?”

 

Ethan pushed the intercom on his desk phone down in Horsepower. “Yes?”

 

The Secret Service uniformed officer at the gate sounded a bit confused. “I have a Senator who says he’s here to see you, sir.”

 

A Senator? To see him? “You sure he has the right name?” Was there a Reichen-something or a Richten-someone up in the West Wing?

 

Yes sir. He says he’s here to see Special Agent Reichenbach. Says he has something for you.”

 

“Who the hell is it?”

 

Senator Jack Spiers, sir.”

 

Oh. Jesus, that had been two months ago. He’d thrown away the shirt and sent his suit to the dry cleaners, and they’d done all they could, but there was still a dark patch in the blue wool. “Okay, I think I know what this is. Yeah, send him over to the garage entrance.”

 

Scott, running through the squeal sheets and intel reports from the last forty-eight hours, snorted. “You getting secret admirers visiting you here now? Someone dropping off roses?”

 

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

 

“No one gives me roses.”

 

“Sucks to be a terrible lay.” Ethan badged out of Horsepower and headed for the garage as Scott called him an asshole, and full of himself to boot.

 

What the hell was the Senator doing? Ethan was certain Senator Spiers had forgotten all about their run-in before the night was over. Why should he have remembered? Ethan had spent the rest of the night hiding by the Beast until the president – buzzed – decided to call it a night and head back to the White House.

 

He waited in the garage, hands in his pockets, as a Mercedes made its cautious way down into the underground parking structure. The small SUV wound around the corner and down the straight away, flashing its headlights once. The window rolled down as it came to a stop next to Ethan.

 

“Hi.” Senator Spiers smiled from the driver’s seat. “Is it… okay to stop here?”

 

“Did you bring a bomb with you? We’ve got a hidden laser gun that will incinerate your vehicle on the spot if it senses any chemical residue.” Ethan took a comical step back.

 

Spiers went ghost white. “Uhh, no, of course not-”

 

“I’m kidding.” Ethan gripped Spiers’s door frame. “What can I do for you, Senator?”

 

Spiers grumbled, shaking his head and sending him a mirthful glare as he pulled an envelope out of the padfolio on his driver’s seat. “This is for you.”

 

“Senator, you really don’t have to-”

 

“Just take it, please? I’ve felt awful since I ran into you, and even worse once you told me who you were. Please, let me do something.”

 

“It’s just a suit.”

 

Spiers wagged the envelope toward the open window, shook it and jiggled it until Ethan finally reached in. Spiers pulled it back at the last moment.

 

Ethan’s jaw dropped.

 

“Kidding. Here.” Laughing, Spiers held it out again.

 

Ethan snatched the envelope and looked inside. His eyes boggled. “Sir, I cannot accept this.” He thrust it back into the car. “I can’t. You have to take this back, please.”

 

Spiers started rolling forward, inching his SUV away with Ethan practically hanging from the window. “I’m sorry, I’m late for a meeting at the Hill. I’ve got to go.” He grinned.

 

“Senator! I cannot take this. It’s way too much.”

 

“It’s the cost of a Hugo Boss suit, which, if I’m not mistaken, was the suit you were wearing, plus the cost of alterations, which I know all you Secret Service agents have to get in order to conceal your weapon under your jacket.” Spiers, thankfully, braked. He smiled. “I said I’d replace it. It’s dollar for dollar. It’s not hush money or anything.”

 

Ethan tried to laugh. Still, getting a thousand dollar gift certificate from a Senator felt… weird. “Senator…”

 

Spiers glared at him, looked down his nose and over his glasses, like a librarian. He raised one eyebrow.

 

“Thank you,” Ethan finally said. “You are far too kind.”

 

“Thank you for accepting. I’m so sorry I ruined your suit, Agent Reichenbach.” Spiers smiled.

 

Something twisted deep inside Ethan’s belly, shooting lower, into his hips, his legs. When a man smiled at him like that, he usually went in full speed ahead. His gaze danced over Spiers’s face, from his pink lips to his baby blue eyes, his cornsilk hair, his smile. A frisson danced down his spine, made a fist deep inside his gut.

 

He stepped back. “Senator.” Holding up the envelope, he nodded once. “Straight head, make a left, and then follow your way up the ramp.”

 

Spiers blinked. Was that surprise? Disappointment? A moment later, it was gone, replaced by the ubiquitous political smile plastered on the face of every politician who entered the White House. Spiers nodded, rolled up his window, and drove away.

 

Ethan watched his headlights snake out of the garage. The image of Spiers’s smile stayed, superimposed on his brain, until he dismantled it, piece by piece and ripped apart the curl of interest that had taken root at the base of his spine.

 

Senators were not for play, nor were straight men. Ever.

 


 

Senator Spiers’s office.” The perky voice on the end of the line sounded perfectly Texan, warm and friendly with a lulling accent. “How can we help you today?”

 

Ethan cleared his throat. “Uhh, I’d like to leave a voicemail for the Senator…. If that’s okay?”

 

Are you a constituent, sir?”

 

“No, I’m from the Secret Service.” It was a little shitty, using his position to gain access. But, most people in DC bent over backwards at the first mention of Secret Service, as if they had a blank check to operate anywhere they wanted. Or, the posh attitude of some who felt that if if the Secret Service acknowledged them, provided them with protection, then they had made it into the upper echelons of political power. Or they just knew whose back to scratch.

 

I’ll connect you right away, sir. Hold please.”

 

The phone rang. Ethan repeated what he wanted to say, his short, rehearsed thank you speech for the Senator’s voicemail. It was a Friday, and Congress mostly didn’t work on Fridays. He could get away with a short voicemail. Assuage his own guilty conscience for accepting such a huge gift.

 

Senator Spiers speaking.”

 

Shit. “Uhh, Mr. Senator. I didn’t expect you to pick up. I told your receptionist I wanted to leave a voicemail.”

 

Well, you’ve got me.” Spiers was smiling, he could tell. “To whom am I speaking?”

 

“Agent Reichenbach, sir.”

 

Agent Reichenbach! Good to hear from you!” Spiers sounded, honestly, happy. “How are you? Any problems with the gift certificate?”

 

“No, no sir, none at all. I uh, just wanted to thank you, again. I got a replacement suit, got it tailored, and it’s perfect. I’m wearing it today, actually. Thank you. Very much.”

 

I’m so glad.” Creaking leather, over the phone, like Spiers was leaning back in his chair. “That tailoring you guys get is pretty amazing. Most of the time, you can’t tell you guys are carrying.

 

“Well, sir, that’s the point. Sir, how did you know I was wearing Hugo Boss?”

 

Takes one to know one. I recognized the cut. I liked that you have style, Agent Reichenbach. And, of course, that also made me want to replace it even more. If you wore, say, a polyester suit, maybe I would have let you just throw that one away.”

 

Ethan laughed. What the hell was wrong with the world? Was a straight man lecturing him on fashion? “Sir, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a cheap polyester suit.”

 

Good man.” A pause. “So, what’s a Secret Service agent’s day like on a Friday?”

 

“Just making sure the mice will stay in line while the cat is away. I’m taking the weekend off. My first since before the election.”

 

Oh wow. You guys work so hard. And, you’re the cat, I presume?”

 

Was this a getting to know you conversation? Was that what this was? Damn it, he shouldn’t have called. He should have sent a note, or a carrier pigeon, or a smoke signal. Or nothing. He’d already said thank you. “I’m the special agent in charge. Detail lead for the presidential detail here at the White House.”

 

I sound like a broken record, but, wow. That’s incredible, Agent Reichenbach. And, of course, I feel even more vindicated that I replaced your suit.”

 

“Senator-”

 

Well, It’s just after four, and I’m about to get out of here for the day-”

 

“Yes sir, I’m sorry. I won’t keep you. Sorry for interrupting.”

 

Stop, no. Do you have any plans this evening? I’d love to buy you a drink if you’re free.”

 

His mouth went dry as his jaw dropped. What the hell was this? Was Senator Spiers really this friendly? His reputation was solid gold, but Ethan had no experience with him as a man. Was this gregariousness, this friendliness, real? He was a politician, so the chances were it was a complete and total act, everything was fraudulent, and in two years, he’d be marched out of the Capitol in handcuffs after a freezer full of cash was raided by the FBI. And maybe a dead stripper as well.

 

Spiers’s smile, the same one he’d demolished and banished, appeared before him in his mind. Ethan closed his eyes. His plans had been to go home and drink beer until he fell asleep in front of the TV, then spend Saturday being a lazy bastard before going to the clubs and finding someone to screw through his mattress four or five times through the night. Bloody Marys on Sunday, laundry, and then back to work Monday morning.

 

Having a drink with a far-too-attractive Senator was not on his to-do list.

 

Were there rules about this? There were a thousand rules in the Secret Service, and a good hundred or so of them were about relations with protectees. But Spiers wasn’t a protectee. He was nothing to Ethan, or to the Secret Service. There was no guidance for this. Damn it.

 

What was the harm? Maybe it would do him some good to expand his social circle. Get to know someone other than his coworkers and the men he picked up, and then generally never saw again.

 

“Sure. Where?” Even to him, his voice sounded strangled, like he’d just agreed to rob a bank or eat live anchovies. But where would Spiers pick? … What if he chose a gay bar? What if-

 

Meet in the middle? Penn Social?

 

Okay, that was definitely a straight bar. “Sure. What time?”

 

I’m closing up here. I’ll be there in about forty five minutes. Come anytime! See you soon, Agent Reichenbach!”

 

Ethan hung up and scrubbed his face with his hands, dug the heels of his palms into his eyes. What the fuck was he doing?

 


 

Drinks with Spiers was a fucking awful idea.

 

Spiers was awesome. He wasn’t fake at all. He was gregarious, and he was funny, and he was friendly. He wanted to know about Ethan’s job and what he loved about it, wanted to hear funny stories – only the ones he could share, of course – and wanted to hear about what Ethan did in DC for fun. He laughed at almost everything Ethan said, smiled all the rest of the time.

 

His smile was gorgeous. Damn it, it really was. The more Spiers smiled, the more Ethan wanted to make him smile. The more Spiers laughed, the more laughter Ethan wanted.

 

He demurred on politics, begging out of that conversation. “I’m no good at politics. I just protect politicians. That’s all. I don’t pretend to know anything.”

 

“You’re very intelligent. I know you’re better than you give yourself credit for.”

 

Ethan flushed. Changed the subject. “All right, What about you? You’ve been here six years. Your freshman term is under your belt. And you spent a big chunk of that working on your signature legislation. Have you gotten away from the Capitol at all?”

 

“No, not really.” Spiers, again, laughed. “It’s sad. Six years as a Senator and I’ve barely seen the whole Mall. Haven’t been to any of the Smithsonians. Or the hundred other awesome museums and galleries around the city.”

 

“You’re missing out. The Mall is great. Especially in spring.” Spring, and summer, when people started sunbathing and men jogged shirtless, wearing tiny running shorts or skin-tight leggings. When the weather warmed up, and the clothes came off. “Smithsonians are all wonderful. Everyone knows about the Air and Space museum, but the galleries are great, too. And the American History Museum.”

 

“I will check them out, for sure.”

 

Want to go next weekend? I’ll pick you up. Dinner after? Drinks? Ethan clamped his lips shut. He spun his beer on the bartop. Stared at Spiers, soaked in his effortless smile. Spiers sat at the bar, but he’d turned to face Ethan, standing beside him. It was like they were the only ones in the whole place, despite the Friday night crowds and the buzz and din of conversation and laughter. All Ethan could see was Spiers.

 

Spiers finished his bourbon on the rocks and signaled for another. “So, Ethan. Do you golf?”

 


 

Ethan kicked his own ass the next afternoon, driving with a set of brand new clubs to the Potomac at Avenal Farms Golf Club, just outside DC. “You’re a dumbass, Ethan. You’re a fucking dumbass. Don’t do this. Don’t fall for his smile. Don’t fall for his friendliness. Go back to what you know. Remember the plan.”

 

Spiers had put his name on the list at the country club’s gated entrance, and Ethan was waved in and given directions to the clubhouse. He wound through manicured lawns and palatial mansions, yards with rose bushes that looked like they should be on magazine covers. The air was too expensive for him to breathe, with his law enforcement civil service salary. He didn’t even make six figures. His older Ford SUV stood out like a country bumpkin mobile, next to the Porsches and Mercedes.

 

He found Spiers sitting in the open trunk of his Mercedes SUV, golf clubs beside him. And, damn it, Spiers looked good. Late April, and the weather was warm enough for khaki shorts and polos, the prep uniform of upper crust men from the east coast. Ethan had gone with tapered leg ivory casual pants and a blue sweater. He hated himself as he did it, but the blue sweater had reminded him of Spiers’s eyes, and he was helpless against that. Plus, it looked great across his shoulders. Not that Spiers was looking. Damn it.

 

“Afternoon, Senator.”

 

Spiers snorted, shook his head. “I told you, call me Jack. Senator is way too formal. I feel like I’m being interviewed on CNN.”

 

But Senator was a shield, a reminder to Ethan that he couldn’t engage, couldn’t flirt. Shouldn’t even be there, that moment, unloading his brand new golf clubs. He avoided the request. “You live around here?”

 

Spiers laughed. “God, no! This is where the lobbyists live. People who make the big bucks. I live in DC.”

 

“Me too. Foggy Bottom. I’ve got a small unit.” He had a two bedroom that he’d poured his free time and his spare salary into, turning a modest place into a stylistic bachelor pad any modern urban gay would kill for. More than once, he’d brought home someone who liked his place better than they liked him. The feeling had been mutual.

 

“Me and three other Congressional reps rent a home in Capitol Hill.” Spiers led him through the clubhouse and the check-in process, chatting as they grabbed a golf cart and started to head out to the first hole. “It’s normal for the junior members, and anyone not in the multi-millionaires’ club, to share houses.”

 

“Really?” Ethan stared as Spiers parked them at the first hole.

 

“Oh yeah. I mean, what other options are there? We all have homes in our states or districts. We have to fly back and forth multiple times a month, if we’re good representatives of the people. Most everyone has a family. So that’s two households to support, plus tons of travel. And DC is expensive. Only the multi millionaires in Congress can afford two – or more – mortgages. The rest end up renting together. Some guys sleep in their office and don’t get a place in DC.” He lined up for his first swing.

 

“Who do you live with?”

 

Spiers rattled off the names of three junior Democrats, two Representatives and one Senator. He squinted, watching his ball sail through the air in a straight line down the green, almost perfectly to the hole. “I couldn’t find any Republicans I actually wanted to spend any time with.” Spiers shrugged. “The party has been in flux for a while.”

 

“So why are you a Republican, then?” Ethan lined up for his shot, stomach knotting. Spiers was a much better golfer than he’d led Ethan to believe. ‘Knocking around a few balls’ and ‘getting out in the sun’ didn’t shoot almost holes in one.

 

He was going to embarrass himself.

 

“I wanted to try and make a difference.” Spiers shrugged. “Isn’t that what they all say? But I wanted to be a new wave of Republicans. Us millennials, you know.” Spiers winked. “We have brand new ideas for the world. Or that’s what they say.”

 

Ethan swung, slamming his ball down the drive. “But you’re still a young man in Congress.” Ethan’s ball went wide, way, way wide. He cringed. “Those boomers still have a chokehold on the place.”

 

“Yeah, they do.” Spiers watched his ball disappear into the rough. He grinned. “Guess we’ve got a hike!”

 


 

Ethan lost, embarrassingly. But Spiers – Jack – was a good sport and he offered to buy Ethan dinner to make up for it.

 

Who was Ethan to say no?

 

They ate at the club, downing steaks and vodka Martinis, sharing DC gossip and beltway rumors. Spiers – Jack – started in on the hilarious misadventures of the Capitol, and Ethan nearly hurt himself laughing so hard.

 

A band started up on the patio, an eighties cover band – God, was that almost classic music now? – and it seemed stupid to leave when the evening was going so well. Thoughts of heading to a club, finding someone, going home with them and screwing until dawn, started to fade further and further away.

 

Between the two of them, they put away a bottle of wine and stayed until the band’s last set. Spiers – Jack, God damnit – finally called it quits during a Journey cover just after eleven.

 

Ethan walked him to his car. Jack was all smiles and laughter, even after a full day out, and he thanked Ethan for going golfing and staying for dinner as if Ethan had made some huge sacrifice to spend so much time in Jack’s orbit.

 

“I had a really great time, Sena- Jack.” Ethan caught himself. Part of him died inside. “Even though I really suck at golf. Especially next to you. But, thank you for inviting me. This was great.”

 

“We’ll have to do this again.”

 

“Or go to the Smithsonian.” Damn it. Ethan wanted to rewind time, smack himself before he spoke. Staple his lips together. He shrugged. “I mean, since you want to.”

 

“Yes! Totally. You can show me your favorite galleries. There are so many.”

 

Fuck. He was so fucked. “Sure.” It’s a date. “You’re on.”

 

Normally, he’d be leaning in and going for suave, smooth, the slick seduction of a hand on a man’s hip, his thumb stroking skin, a hipbone. His lips hovering above another’s, fingers grazing another man’s five o’clock shadow. He always held his lover’s gaze until his lover’s eyes closed right before they kissed. This was the moment, the exact moment, when he’d try to turn everything, go for a one night grand slam… if he knew the guy he was with was gay.

 

Jack smiled, waved, and hopped into his Mercedes. “Have a great Sunday, Ethan!”

 

Ethan watched him drive off, berating himself a thousand different ways.

 


 

One trip to the Smithsonian turned into two, which turned into five.

 

Jack invited him to a Nationals baseball game, and then another.

 

At some point, Jack started texting him, above and beyond the basic get together logistics.

 

Hope you’re having a better day than I am.

 

[Uh oh. What happened?]

 

Committee meetings. So fing awful, especially when some senators use it for grandstanding. Someone’s belabouring their point. Beating a dead horse.

 

[Gotta love Congress.]

 

Even I give us a negative ten approval rating.

 

[LOL]

 

What are you up to this weekend?

 

[POTUS wants to head up to Camp David before the G7 summit. Take a short weekend vaca. Planning the logistics for that and reviewing G7 intel.]

 

You’re going to be gone this weekend, next week, and next weekend too, right?

 

Ethan’s heart beat faster. Was this a test? Did Jack not want him gone that long? It wasn’t like they spent every weekend together, or saw each other every week. Okay, well, maybe they did. He started counting the days, adding up the times they hung out. He refused to call them dates, flat out refused.

 

Yeah, all right, they spent a lot of time together. At least once every week.

 

[I don’t have to go to Camp David. I wasn’t planning on it.]

 

Lies. He’d been definitely planning on it. Camp David was great. But spending some time with Jack was even greater. He was so fucked. So epically fucked.

 

We were going to have a little get together at the house this weekend. BBQ, hang out. Wanna come over? It’s completely casual. Just want to be outside and enjoy the weather.

 

[I love BBQ. 🙂 ]

 

Great! 🙂

 

[Can I bring something?] Flowers, chocolate, his sanity in a box? A key to Ethan’s heart? Something ridiculous to show Jack just how utterly and completely ridiculous he truly was?

 

Some beer and yourself! 🙂 Looking forward to it!

 


 

He fretted way too much over what to wear. What did two Senators and two Representatives wear on the weekend? Jack looked like a walking Calvin Klein advertisement every time they met up. Boat shoes and tailored shorts, slim fit polos, linen button-downs that didn’t look ridiculous, summer suits in lighter fabric. Ethan was a hip gay, and he’d always prided himself on looking his best, but his best was usually his suits or clubwear. He was woefully short on casual straight dude chill clothes. In the end, he went for his golf outfit, and swore he’d buy new clothes.

 

Jack and his Congressional roommates lived in one of best streets in Capitol HIll, in an older Victorian that had been renovated and modernized. Stately gray on the outside, the inside was gleaming hardwood, wainscoting, and plush throw rugs. But, it was still a bachelor pad. Two bikes and a skateboard leaned against the wall of the dining room. The dining room table was piled with his papers, reports, legal pads, and laptops. Notes to the rest of the roommates were tacked around the house. Keep the thermostat set at 75, no exceptions. Leave the washer lid OPEN after washing. Move your clothes immediately, or they will be left in the spare basket. Absolutely no microwaving of fish. Ever. You burn the popcorn, you clean the kitchen. All of it.

 

Congressmen Shafer answered when Ethan knocked. He blinked twice, seemed shocked, and then cried, “Oh! You must be Jack’s friend!” He turned and, in true frat fashion, hollered at the top of his lungs into the house, “Jack!”

 

From up the polished wood stairs, snaking up two levels of the townhome, Ethan heard “What?”

 

“Your friend is here!”

 

Jack’s voice appeared clearer and Ethan saw his head appear over the banister, two floors up. “Ethan! Be right down.”

 

Jack thundered down the stairs a moment later, freshly showered and smelling utterly fucking divine. Ethan locked his knees, forced himself to stay upright as Jack beamed at him. That smile was deadly, fucking deadly.

 

He got the nickel tour, dropped his beer in the fridge, and met Congressmen Shafer and Watts, and Senator Karthi. Karthi had invited his girlfriend over, as had Watts. Shafer was single, “happily, happily single,” he said, pushing off Karthi’s offer to hook him up.

 

No one asked Jack about a girlfriend. Everyone knew his story. CNN specials had been aired about him, and about his deceased hero wife.

 

Wife. Wife.

 

Ethan was fair game, though, and Shafer started in on quizzing Ethan as Jack and Watts worked the grill. What did he do? How was the White House? Could he dish on the administration? What did he do for fun? Was he seeing anyone?

 

“No, I’m single, too.” Ethan couldn’t drink his beer fast enough. He caught Jack’s eye. Jack smiled. Ethan’s heart skipped a beat.

 

“Happily single?” Shafer held out his beer for Ethan to toast, if he agreed.

 

He shook his head. “No, just single.”

 

If Jack ever gave him an opening, ever gave him a hint, a suggestion that there was even the possibility of more… he’d be the happiest man on the planet.

 

Until then, he was the dumbest. Because Jack was straight. And Ethan knew this.

 

But his heart still ached, and his days had long since started to revolve around Senator Jack Spiers.

 


 

The G7 was uneventful. He spent most of his time obsessively checking his phone, enough so that Scott and Daniels both called him out on it.

 

“Are you picking up ass here?” Scott had seemed both impressed and mortified. “I’m not sure how I feel about you banging another country’s presidential detail.”

 

Ethan kept his mouth shut about the UN General Assembly meeting six years before. He’d gone international relations with Israel and South Korea. Members of their country’s security delegation were wonderful people, and extremely vocal in bed. “No, I’m not picking anyone up.”

 

“Checking on your boo back home?” Daniels had a knowing glint in his eyes. “It’s that early time, right? When you can’t get each other out your mind?”

 

Ethan shoved his phone in his pants and glowered at them both. “None of your fucking business.”

 

“Oooo.” Scott and Daniels shared a scandalized look. “It might be serious, Daniels.”

 

“Yeah, cause when it’s not, he’s usually telling us all about it.” Daniels winked and laughed, almost spraining something when Ethan just kept glaring at them both.

 

It was all worth it, though, for the feeling he got when he woke up to Jack’s text. Hope you’re having a good time and everything’s going smoothly. Thought of you today.

 

God, what he wanted to text back! Thought of you too. I think of you all the time. I can’t get you out of my mind. Send me a picture of you smiling? I want to use it as my phone background. Do you remember the songs from 2004? I think of you when I hear them.

 

He didn’t say any of that. [Going good. Looking forward to coming home.]

 

Scott, Daniels, Ethan, and Harry went out to dinner when they got back, as per a tradition that Ethan had started sometime and insisted they keep up. His friends at the Secret Service were his only close friends, up until Jack quite literally crashed into his life.

 

Of course, Scott got going on who his mysterious texter was, and Daniels started egging Scott on, pushing him to push Ethan even harder. They started guessing, wild guesses over who Ethan’s paramour might be as Ethan downed his beer and stared across the restaurant, pouting.

 

“To get you this worked up, he has to be something crazy. Totally fucking nuts.” Scott started bringing his guessing back down to planet Earth sometime after his second scotch. “So it’s not a twink or a young college kid.” He squinted. “An athlete? Or an actor? Someone who can’t come out?”

 

That was a decent guess, and Ethan loved Scott for thinking of that. He shook his head.

 

Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Someone in this town?”

 

Oh shit.

 

Daniels leaned forward. “I thought you said you’d never date anyone in politics?”

 

Ethan squirmed. His neck flushed, damn it. He could feel the heat rising beneath his collar.

 

“Someone in politics…” Scott shook his head. “I cannot believe you. You have a literal front row seat to the worst politics in the world, and you go and fall for one of those scumbags?”

 

“He’s not like that. He’s different.”

 

“Ah ha! So it’s true!”

 

Ethan groaned. “He’s… genuine, and kind, and smart, and funny. He cares. He really does. He’s trying to make things better.”

 

“Oh my fucking God. You’ve drank the Kool Aid. Does it come out of his dick? Is that how you’re getting it?”

 

Ethan threw his napkin across the table at Scott. “We’re not sleeping together.”

 

Both Scott and Daniels froze. Their gazes met, held. Their heads swiveled to Ethan. Incredulity drowned the table, doubt like an ocean wave that hit him hard. “Yeah, right. Not with how you’re acting, Romeo.”

 

“We’re not. He’s…” Ethan wilted. Sighing, he propped his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. He knew the truth. But saying it out loud just made him feel beyond lame. “He’s straight.”

 

“What?”

 

“I said, he’s straight.” Ethan folded his arms, pursed his lips. “He’s not interested. I’m being fucking stupid.”

 

Daniels had the decency to look contrite. Scott threw his head back and howled. “Jesus, Ethan. You finally fall for someone and he’s not into you at all. That’s poetic, right there.”

 

“Asshole.”

 

Scott chuckled and shook his head. “I’m sorry, man. But even you have to admit. That is irony.”

 

“Man, stop.” Daniels clucked at Scott. Shook his head. He jerked his chin to Ethan. “It’s all right. The right man will come along for you, and he’ll be everything you need. It’ll happen out of the blue. You won’t even know it’s coming, just, bam! That’s why I don’t look for my future wife. I know when it’s meant to happen, it will happen.”

 

Ethan tried to let Daniels’s words comfort him.

 

But the right man had already arrived, had already appeared out of the blue with a bam, and he was everything Ethan craved.

 

Except… Jack wasn’t into Ethan at all.

 


 

It was Jack’s turn to go workaholic next. Congress spun up after a NATO patrol in the Mediterranean found a cargo ship filled to the brim with weapons and material meant for terrorists hiding in Europe. The weapons were listed as supplies for the refugee resettlements from the Middle East in Europe, and that just hit all the political hot buttons.

 

Jack appeared on CNN and other news shows, counseling restraint and urging people to put their faith and trust in the security apparatus of the United States and her NATO allies. They were going to get to the bottom of what had happened. They were going to keep everyone safe. There was no need to panic, no need to scrap the immigration laws or restrict refugees coming into the United States.

 

President Gutierrez called for an emergency NATO meeting to discuss the ongoing security situation and potential threats. Ethan worked closely with the presidential travel team and the planning staff to coordinate security arrangements in Prague. Every few hours, he’d see Jack on CNN again, playing in the background of the White House and the West Wing, everywhere he looked.

 

[You look great on TV. You sound great.]

 

Thanks! It’s been a looooooong few days. I’m trying to stop the hysterics of people who want to demolish the immigration bill, or scrap refugees altogether. Or who want to outright ban Syrian immigrants.

 

[That’s a nightmare. But you made really good points. Thought you demolished any argument for going to the extremes really well.]

 

Thought you didn’t get involved in politics? 🙂 Didn’t like it?

 

[I do now, because of you. I’m learning more. Someone keeps bringing it up. 🙂 ]

 

🙂

You going to the NATO summit the president called?

 

[Yeah.]  Would it be too much to say I wish you could come with me? Yes. Yes it would. [Have you ever been?]

 

No. Heard it’s awesome. Take some pictures for me!

 

[Will do.]  He hesitated, tapping his phone against his palm at least two dozen times. [Want to grab a drink before I go?]

 

Definitely!

 


 

He tossed and turned the entire flight to Prague on Air Force One. He hadn’t slept the night before, or the night before that. Thoughts of Jack consumed his mind, his every moment.

 

What was this? They texted every day. Jack asked him to drinks, to dinner, to ball games, to BBQs, to museums, to the National Mall, out on hikes, to golf. He seemed to want to be around Ethan, connect with him. If Jack were gay, or bi, he’d know that Jack wanted him. That Jack wanted to be with him. It would be obvious.

 

But when they were together, Jack didn’t seem to want to push anything further. No lingering looks, no flirtation, no careless hands left on shoulders or skin. Jack barely touched him, even. Never once had he checked Ethan out. He’d never picked up on Ethan’s extremely subtle offerings for flirtation, for delicate banter back and forth.

 

So, Jack wanted Ethan, but as what? A friend? A buddy? Someone to do things with?

 

How much longer could he go on like that? How much longer could he keep this longing under wraps? His fantasies were becoming outrageous, his make believe scenarios of Jack professing his hidden gayness, his animalistic desire for Ethan. In his mind, Jack wilted in Ethan’s arms like an old black and white movie and begged to be taken. Ethan carried him up the stairs in his shared house, kicked open his bedroom door. Ethan had never seen Jack’s bedroom, but he imagined it. Dreamt it, every night, as he dreamt making love to Jack.

 

Waking up with wet boxers and cum-stained sheets was getting old. As was the self deprecation, the self flagellation. The anguished wonder. One day, would Jack-

 

He couldn’t keep going like this. He just couldn’t.

 

While NATO met, Russia was on the move. President Puchkov had made back channel overtures to the US, according to Jack, and wanted to be invited to the NATO summit to contribute. Gutierrez balked, absolutely refusing to engage with the Russians in any way. In response, Puchkov sent an army division to the border on routine exercises, scaring the living shit out of Eastern Europe, and Russian fighters buzzed American surveillance planes in the Middle East for the entire summit. Gutierrez was haggard, worn, and exhausted by the end.

 

Jack kept up a running commentary for Ethan, translating things Ethan saw or heard, political ramifications of seemingly pointless foreign interactions, and on the ground happenings back in DC.

 

Gutierrez should have invited Puchkov. It was an overture, and since Putin’s outsing, we’ve needed more honest engagement with Russia. With whatever they’re going to become, now that Putin has been forced out.

 

[I can see why people say you should run for president, you know.]

 

Oh stop.

 

[You have a broad worldview. You can see the bigger picture, the larger consequences. Not just of one action, but of so many actions, all happening together. POTUS didn’t think about Puchkov making an overture, or the future of Russia. He just thought Russia wasn’t NATO, Russia was against us in Syria, and that’s that.]

 

Gutierrez wasn’t my first choice in the primary. 🙂

 

[I heard you almost ran?]

 

I thought about it.

 

[Why didn’t you? I keep thinking about what it would be like if you were here.] Ethan pressed his lips together after he sent his message. Depending on how it was read, it was exactly what Ethan meant.

 

I had a choice. I could focus on my immigration bill or I could run for president. I couldn’t do both. If I ran, then I’d have lost the bill. It needed serious shepherding through Congress.

 

[But you could have passed that as president, too.]

 

I could have. But there was no guarantee I’d get through the primary, or the general. My party hasn’t been awesome for a while. If I’m going to change that, I wanted something to actually show for it.

 

[You ever wish there were more than the two parties?]

 

Every day. 🙂

 

He typed, When we get back, can we talk? And then deleted it, character by character.

 

You hanging in there? I bet these trips are second nature to you by now. I’m not sure I have the stamina.

 

[Yes you do. You’d be a great president.]

 

🙂

 

[I mean it. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot.]

 

I like my privacy. Though, it’d be pretty cool  to work with you!

 

An Arctic blast slammed into Ethan, like being dumped into the water beneath the north pole. If Jack were president – that moment, in another universe, in the future, sometime, somewhere – he’d never, ever get to befriend him. Never, ever be able to connect with him, in any way. Never get to know him, get to text him. Never get to see him smile, not the way Ethan craved. Not like it was meant for him and him alone.

 

A part of his soul shriveled. He was alone in his hotel room, lying in bed and texting Jack like a lovesick idiot. Like a demented gay, lusting and longing for someone who wouldn’t ever want him back.

 

Ethan set his phone down on the nightstand, face down, and rolled away.

 


 

He lasted fourteen hours before he checked his messages again.

 

When do you get back? My congressional roomies are out of town next weekend. If you’re free, we could grill. Catch a game. Unwind from this month.

 

Fuck. He wanted to unwind by stripping Jack, kissing his way up and down Jack’s body, suck him until Jack blew, deep in his throat. Flip him over, eat his ass until Jack screamed, and then make love to him until the sun rose and set again. He wanted everything, fucking everything.

 

And Jack wanted to eat burgers and watch baseball.

 

He had to stop this.

 

He’d tell Jack, tell him he couldn’t keep doing this. That he needed a break for his sanity. That he’d gone and broken the one cardinal rule of falling in gay love. Never, ever fall for a straight.

 

[Yeah, I’m free. I’ll be there. Hey, there’s something I want to talk to you about, too.]

 


 

He was a nervous wreck all week, peaking Friday, followed by depression Saturday morning. He was going to ruin everything. Jack would throw him out. He’d never see Jack again. He was going to ruin their friendship completely. Should he just not say anything? Could he deal with this on his own? Maybe he should just go fuck someone, pick someone up in DC and force Jack out of his mind.

 

He didn’t want anyone else. No one online compared. No one’s smile looked the same as Jack’s. Pictures of cock and ass did nothing. It was just a parade of not-Jack, a slideshow of all the men that weren’t the one he wanted.

 

Finally, he headed over to Jack’s.

 

The grill was already on when he arrived and Jack was slicing tomatoes and onions in the big kitchen at the granite island. He had a cold beer ready for Ethan, waiting. “Make yourself at home!”

 

They bullshitted and bitched about DC, about the Capitol, about the White House and Gutierrez. His poll numbers were sinking, tensions were rising, and Russia was being belligerent again.

 

“I swear, with the Russians, it’s like if you don’t give them the attention they want, they act out to get it. Gutierrez missed his opportunity to set a new tone with Puchkov. He could have signalled that we wanted to deal with the Russians on the level. Start a new tone of respect, with a brand-new leader. Who knows what we could have accomplished?”

 

“You should run for president, Jack. You really should.”

 

Jack just smiled. “Maybe. One day. Oh, can you get me another beer?” He had his hands full, shredding lettuce and shucking corn. The island was a mess.

 

Ethan grabbed a beer and popped the top. It was a Texas brew, a dark lager. He’d grown fond of it, thanks to Jack, and kept it in his own fridge, too.

 

“Oh, you said you wanted to talk?”

 

Ethan closed his eyes. Faced the fridge and tried to steel his nerves. Dread filled him, thundered through him. There’s no going back if you do this. What if you lose everything?

 

He turned. He’d prepared a speech, something short and to the point. I’m gay. I’ve fallen for you, a bit, but it’s okay. I’ve got it under control. I just want you to know why I’ll be keeping quiet for a while. I need to get you out of my head. You’re so beautiful. I need some space to forget that. His speech went off the rails quickly.

 

Jack looked up. Met his gaze. Smiled.

 

Everything he’d prepared fled. Every thought. Every intention. Jack stood in his kitchen, in shorts and a polo, shucking corn as the summer sun flitted through the kitchen window, catching rays of gold and the first hints of silver in his hair. Had his eyes ever been that shade of ocean blue? Had his smile ever looked so warm, so perfect? Had Ethan’s knees ever truly buckled, like they were about to?

 

He crossed the kitchen and set the beer down in front of Jack. Kept his gaze locked on Jack’s. Jack didn’t say a word, just watched Ethan, still smiling. Trusting Ethan.

 

Slowly, Ethan reached for him, cradling his face. His palms cupped Jack’s jaw, his cheeks. The first hint of confusion slipped into Jack’s eyes.

 

No, that wasn’t good. But what should he say? What could he say?

 

He’d never been good with words.

 

Ethan leaned in, capturing Jack’s lips with his own. He pressed them together, holding Jack’s face as he nuzzled, as he suckled, as he made love to Jack’s lips, kissing him the way he’d fantasized about for months. He dreamt of kissing Jack, had woken up kissing the air and breathing Jack’s name. He’d imagined their first kiss a hundred thousand times-

 

A hand pressed against the center of his chest, pushing him back.

 

Never, not once in those hundred thousand imaginings, did Jack push him away.

 

Ethan flew backward, retreating to the far side of the island. He faced the fridge, grabbed the edges of the door. Leaned forward, and begged for the ground to open, to swallow him whole. For lighting to strike him that instant.

 

“Ethan…” Jack’s voice was shaky. Ethan closed his eyes, squeezed them shut. “Ethan… Are you… gay?”

 

He twisted, looking at Jack over his shoulder. Jack had gone bone white. His eyes were wide, stricken, like he was looking at some horrible tragedy. His hands hovered in mid air, empty, lost.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Was that what you wanted to talk about?” Jack’s voice was thin, almost strangled.

 

“I think I’m in love with you,” Ethan breathed. I know I’m in love with you. “I-” He couldn’t speak. Not anymore.

 

Jack’s gaze skittered away, to the corner of the kitchen. He blinked, turned away. “Ethan…”

 

He didn’t need to hear anymore. Didn’t need to hear Jack’s stutter, his stumbles. Didn’t need to hear him fluster and fumble through turning Ethan down.

 

It was only ever going to end this way, exactly this way.

 

“Don’t,” he growled. “Just don’t. I already know. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”

 

He stormed out, and Jack didn’t try to stop him.

 


 

Their texting stopped.

 

Jack never reached out, after. Never asked him out for a drink, or told him it was fine, he understood, they could move past it. The Nationals played two back-to-back series at home. Ethan couldn’t make himself watch. He just heard Jack’s aggressive play calling, the ghost of his laugh.

 

His new golf clubs, that he’d bought to go golfing with Jack, gathered dust.

 

Scott noticed, as did Daniels. Scott tried to distract him with work. Daniels offered to go out with him to the gayborhood again. He couldn’t muster the enthusiasm and told Daniels some other time.

 

DC summers were long, the days interminably hot and everlasting. Ethan’s hours crept by at the White House. He’d catch Jack on CNN at odd hours, saw his gaze peek out from monitors and TV screens as he made his way through the West Wing. Heard his voice on the radio, driving home.

 

He started walking the National Mall, always walking away from the Capitol toward the Lincoln Memorial. He didn’t want to see the Capitol building.

 

He replayed that afternoon a million times in his mind. What he’d done, and how wrong he’d been. How stupid, how rude. He’d lost his mind, completely. Of course Jack didn’t want anything to do with him. Of course.

 

He drank Jack’s Texas beer slowly, savoring the taste, the memories. Each beer was a goodbye as he packaged the months they’d spent together into a tiny box and buried it, deep in his heart. When he was done with the beer, he’d be done with Jack. For good.

 

He drank the last beer on August 1st. He could only get through half before he poured himself into bed and let his misery wash over him again.

 


 

His phone woke him at three in the morning, ringing shrilly on his nightstand.

 

Sir, we’ve had a situation. There’s been a nuclear detonation in Nairobi, Kenya.”

 

He set a land speed record getting to the White House. Once there, he went into full alert, shutting down the White House and instituting the highest levels of protections. Gutierrez locked himself in the Situation Room and ordered the military to respond. Kenya wasn’t there to give the go ahead to the troops, but Gutierrez pushed ahead anyway. American forces invaded Kenya hours after the blast.

 

He saw Jack on CNN again, calling for aid to be given to Kenya, and to the stricken Nairobi region. He championed a gigantic multinational aid package and drummed up significant private sector donations and technical support for recovery and rebuilding as well. Ethan’s heart ached, seeing Jack on screen again and seeing him in his element. Working for the world. Making things better. He wanted to text him, so badly. Tell Jack that he should be president. That he needed to be president. That the world needed him.

 

He won’t run if he thinks you’re going to be in the White House.

 

Maybe he should transfer. Get away from the White House and let Jack make his run.

 

It would be best for everyone.

 


 

Gutierrez refused to travel after the nuclear attack, canceling all foreign trips. He hunkered down in the White House. Russia and China stepped into the void, promising aid and international assistance and political support where the US had fallen short in Kenya. Even with all of Jack’s efforts, the president had set the tone for the American response to the nuclear attack, and he’d turned the country into a paranoid, cautious place.

 

Russia still took every chance she could to be belligerent, and Puchkov took great delight in stymieing the US in the Middle East. He foiled their efforts in Syria, interfered in Iraq.

 

One day, a delegation from Iraq, made up of Kurdish fighters, arrived at the White House on a guided tour from the Pentagon.

 


 

 

Breaking News

White House Attacked – Shots Fired Within House

Secret Service Fights Back and Retakes West Wing

The White House came under attack by unknown assailants  who gained entry to the West Wing posing as foreign military officers on an official visit. The attackers were able to gain access to the Secret Service’s weapons lockers and turn the White House’s armory against the Secret Service. Agents were pinned in the East Wing as the attackers took the president and his staff hostage in the Oval Office. A small team of Secret Service agents stormed the Oval Office and killed the attackers. Twelve agents were killed, and one remains in critical condition at Bethesda.

 


 

He was dreaming of Jack, again.

 

Jack, lying beside him. His fingers stroking his hair, playing with his strands. Smiling down at him. Pressing kisses to his temple, the corners of his eyes. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to. He as there, and he was smiling.

 

But there was a beeping in the background, something strange and out of place. Jack and he were in bed; no they were on a rocky beach, somewhere cold, beside black waves and a cold ocean. No, they were on a sandy beach, in Hawaii. In the White House, in the Residence. He shook his head, blinked. Tried to focus. But Jack faded away, dissipating to nothingness as he clawed his way back to consciousness.

 

The beeping continued. He rolled his head, and regretted it immediately. The world spun, wobbling like a crazed gimbal on overdrive. He managed to make out a heart monitor and an IV pole, though, through the smeared world. He was in a hospital.

 

Bandages covered his chest, his stomach. He felt like he’d been run over by a tank. In the end, he’d charged the lead attacker, firing as he was fired upon. Ethan was a better shot though. Ethan took three shots – two to the belly, one to the right lung.

 

He’d shot the last of the attackers through the center of the forehead. President Gutierrez had been his human shield.

 

Slowly, the world came back into focus. He tried to peer around his hospital room. Everything was fuzzy and out of sorts. The meds they had him on were strong.

 

He froze. Clearly, whatever they had him on was strong enough to make him hallucinate. Because there was no way Senator Jack Spiers was sleeping in a chair beside his hospital bed.

 

The beeping on his heart monitor increased, spiking dramatically. An alert sounded, and footsteps rustled down the hall. A nurse poked her head in. “Well hello, Sleeping Beauty. Or should I say, Sleeping Hero?”

 

“What?” He tried to say. All that came out was a wheeze and a hacking cough. The nurse helped him sit up, helped his broken body resettle.

 

Hands appeared, holding a cup of water. Ethan followed those hands, up over arms, all the way to Jack’s face. Jack, sleepy, unkempt, with wild hair and exhausted, red-rimmed eyes, and a paunchy, puffy face that spoke of sleepless, restless nights. “Jack?”

 

Jack pressed his lips together. He shook his head. Pressed the cup into his hands and walked away to the window on the other side of the room.

 

“Senator Spiers has been keeping vigil over you.” His nurse smiled at him. “He’s been here around the clock. He’s never left.”

 

Jack’s shoulders trembled. Ethan couldn’t tell if it was his own eyes vibrating or if Jack was trying to hide his shaking. What was Jack doing there? Why had he come to Ethan’s bedside?

 

His nurse left him after checking his meds, adjusting his drip, checking his catheter and all of his bandages. He was exhausted by the time she was through, halfway asleep by the time she walked out. But he couldn’t close his eyes, not without knowing why Jack was there. “Jack?”

 

Jack turned. The lights, dimmed for nighttime, caught a wet sheen on his cheeks, at the corners of his eyes. He blinked and looked away, staring out of the hospital window. Sniffed, long and loud. “I thought you were going to die.”

 

“Would it matter if I did?”

 

“Of course it would!” Jack looked horrified, like Ethan had physically struck him.

 

His thoughts were molasses slow, his emotions blunted. He saw the world, but couldn’t feel it. “M’sorry,” he mumbled. “Can’t think right. The meds. Are you even really here?”

 

Jack slumped. “Yes, I’m here, Ethan.” He came back to Ethan’s bedside, into the circle of light over Ethan’s head. His tears shone like diamonds, like fresh rivers on his skin. “I’ll be here when you wake up again, too. I’m not leaving.”

 

One of Jack’s hands slid into Ethan’s. He squeezed, hard. He didn’t let go.

 

“I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

 

Jack shook his head. “Don’t-”

 

“I lost you. I loved you, and I lost you. Exactly what I was afraid of.”

 

Jack’s face twisted again. He sniffed. A tear fell on Ethan’s cheek. “I was working on my seventeenth letter to you when the attack happened. I was trying to figure out what to say. How to tell you-” Jack’s lips squeezed. He shut his eyes.

 

“S’okay. I know.”

 

“No, you don’t, Ethan!” Anger snapped through Jack’s voice, cracking through the room like a whip. “You don’t know!”

 

“I know you don’t love me. Like I loved you.”

 

Jack stared at him, deep into his eyes. “You’re wrong,” he whispered. “You’re wrong.”

 

Frowning, Ethan tried to respond, tried to speak, but his body lost its fight against his meds and he slipped back into unconsciousness.

 


 

Jack was there every time he woke up. Sometimes he was on the phone, talking softly in the corner, trying not to wake Ethan. Other times he was sitting by Ethan’s bedside, as close as he could get without actually getting into the bed with Ethan.

 

Ethan watched him sleep when he woke up in the middle of the night. Jack had pillowed his suit jacket and curled in the chair. He could count each knob on Jack’s spine through his wrinkled button-down.

 

“He’s been there since you were brought to the recovery ward.” His nurse, the sweetest black woman in the history of time, gave him a knowing smile. “It’s news all over the country now.”

 

“What?”

 

“The attack at the White House turned DC upside down. Congress is running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Everyone in the country is panicked, too. People are calling for investigations, committee hearings. How did a group of attackers penetrate the White House? Who brought them in?”

 

Her words swam by Ethan, important, but not what he wanted to hear. “You said he was all over the country…”

 

“He showed up here demanding to see you. Said you were close, best friends. He said he wasn’t going to let you recover in here alone.” She pulled out her cell phone and opened Twitter to Jack’s feed. “He told the nation he was going to stay by your side while you recovered, too.”

 

Friends, we’re all in shock after the terrible attack in DC. I’m devastated by the loss of life. One of my closest and dearest friends, a Secret Service agent, was gravely wounded during this attack. I will be spending time with this American Hero during his recovery. Hug your loved ones tight tonight.

 

Ethan had to read the Tweet five times before it really sank in.

 

“He’s been posting a few updates, too. Nothing too personal.” She scrolled, and there were a handful of Tweets from Jack’s time in the hospital. His chair bed, his “place of vigil”. Ethan’s blanket-covered feet. “Keep resting, hero. We need you to wake up and come back to us.” Ethan’s hand, the IV line stuck into his vein. “We never know how much we care about the people in our lives, until they’re gone. Don’t waste a moment telling your families how much you love them tonight.

 

He blinked fast. Pushed away the phone. Closed his eyes for a moment and tried to breathe.

 

“You all right, sweetie?” His nurse stroked his hair and smiled at him. Something warm, and knowing, sat deep in her gaze.

 

“Who died, in the attack?”

 

She looked down. “Twelve Secret Service agents were killed. I can get you their names?”

 

“Please.”

 


 

The last name on the list she brought him read Agent Levi Daniels, killed in action.

 

Ethan rolled over and buried his face in his pillow. He screamed, sobbed. That morning, he and Daniels had been talking about going out again. Daniels had been right there, by his side through his whole one-sided breakup with Jack. He’d distracted Ethan, taken him out to sports bars to watch ball games, play darts or pool. They’d started running together, lifting weights.

 

Had he done something wrong? Had he failed to cover Levi in the Oval Office? Was there a moment when Levi needed him and he wasn’t there? What had happened? Why hadn’t he saved his friend?

 

A hand stroked down his hair, his back. A cheek pressed against his ear. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Jack’s voice, strangled with tears.

 

Jack knew who his friends were. He had so few, he could easily name them, talk about them. Jack knew about Scott, and about Levi. Harry. He must have read the list and known.

 

He reached for Jack, both hands grabbing at Jack’s shirt, his shoulders, his arms. He pulled him down, until Jack was practically in bed with him. He needed the touch, the comfort. He needed someone to hold him.

 

Jack wrapped both arms around him and pressed their cheeks together. He kept whispering in Ethan’s ear, apologizing and saying his name, stroking his hair. Eventually, Jack did slide into the bed, giving up the folded-in-half pretense of standing. He threw one leg over Ethan’s and pulled him close. Ethan buried his face in Jack’s neck and let his tears run like rivers from the bottom of his soul.

 


 

His nurse made him start walking the next day, up and down the corridors. He hobbled, leaning hard on Jack and keeping a death grip on his IV pole, but he made it. She gave him an extra chocolate pudding for lunch.

 

Sleep beckoned, but he wanted more time with Jack. He needed to know, to understand. What did Jack being at his bedside mean? What did waking up in Jack’s arms, after crying for Levi, mean? Was this just Jack being Jack? Friendly, caring far too much, and letting his heart bleed out for those he-

 

“I saw your Twitter. The nurse showed me.”

 

Jack blushed. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I thought I was being anonymous, but now the whole country has figured out who you are. There are a lot of people thinking of you and wishing you well.”

 

Ethan flinched. Wasn’t thinking clearly. “You don’t really have to stay anymore. I’m awake now.”

 

There were times that Jack had an intensity, like his soul had expanded, like he had his own gravity that bent reality toward him. Ethan felt that, suddenly, felt Jack’s heat and his presence. He stared at Ethan, eyes burning. “I want to be here. I want to be at your side.”

 

Ethan swallowed, slowly.

 

“If that’s… all right?” Jack seemed nervous. Uncertain, suddenly. “If I’m still welcome,” he said in a rush.

 

“Of course you’re welcome.” Ethan yawned a bone-cracking, jaw-splitting yawn. The world was fading on the edges. “But… why? Why are you here?”

 

Jack took his hand and laced their fingers together. He stroked down each of Ethan’s meaty fingers. “Sleep, Ethan. We’ll talk when you wake up. I’ll be here. I promise.”

 

He wanted to fight, but his body wanted to sleep, and before he could put together a response, his eyes closed, and he was out again.

 

When he woke, Jack was still holding his hand, and he’d laid his cheek on Ethan’s mattress. His other hand lay on Ethan’s knee, as if he was trying to hold onto Ethan, like he was afraid Ethan would disappear from beneath him.

 

The nurse did her checks, head to toe, and changed his bandages. He had four lines of stitches going across his abdomen, like he was a doll sewn together with Frankenstein stitches. Jack stayed right by his side.

 

When she left, Jack took his hand again, cradling it in both of his own. He kissed Ethan’s knuckles, pressed his cheek against the back of Ethan’s hand.

 

Ethan inhaled and held his breath.

 

“I think I’m bi,” Jack whispered. “I didn’t know. I didn’t think I could feel anything anymore. I thought my heart was done, after Leslie died.”

 

“Jack…”

 

“After… what happened, I couldn’t get you out of my mind. I thought I would get over it. I thought it was just… not having been kissed in fifteen years. Not having been touched. There’s been nothing, and no one. I thought… “ Jack licked his lips. “I made up excuse after excuse,” he finally breathed. “But the truth is… I missed you. I missed you so badly.”

 

“Jack-” Ethan tried to jerk his hand free, tried to escape. He couldn’t do this. Couldn’t listen to a half-hearted declaration of love, not when he’d just gotten over Jack himself. He couldn’t do this, couldn’t be just friends with Jack. He’d tried, and he’d failed, and he’d cut out his heart in the process.

 

“I’m dreaming about you. About us. Together. I haven’t jacked off in… years. Now it’s like I can’t stop.” Jack chuckled once. “I tried watching porn. But-” He shook his head. “The only thing gets me going… is you.”

 

He couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t do anything except stare into Jack’s gaze.

 

“I want you, Ethan. I want to stay here, at your side, and help you recover. I want to wake up and see your face, first thing, every day. I want to see your smile. Hear your laugh. I want to look into your eyes before you go to sleep every night. I want to hold your hand.” Jack squeezed. “I want to grill with you, and go to galleries with you, and golf with you, and play frisbee on the National Mall, and meet you for drinks, and after every one of those things, I want to kiss you. I want to kiss you, and I want to figure out what it means that I’m so fucking attracted to you. That I dream about us making love.” He squeezed again and swallowed, hard. “I want to be with you, Ethan. But am I too late?”

 

I think I’m bi. Jack’s voice, his words, crashed through his mind. I think I’m bi. I’m dreaming about you. About us. I think I’m bi.

 

“You said…” Jack shook his head. He looked away. Tears clung to his eyelashes, hovering over his cheeks. “You said you loved me. Past tense. I’m too late, aren’t I? Someone like you… Someone perfect and amazing… you’re not going to wait around. You’re not going to stay single for long. A million guys would kill to be with you. God.” He looked down, and the tears fell down his cheeks, rivers racing to his trembling chin, his day-old scruff.  

 

“Jack… I can’t get over you. I tried. But I couldn’t. Not yet.”

 

Hope, a physical thing, seized Jack, like lightning stuck him, impaled him. He turned to Ethan, his eyes begging, pleading. “Can you give me another chance? Can we try again?”

 

I should be the one apologizing. I kissed you, unasked. That’s… wrong, so wrong. Jack-”

 

Jack leaned in, swooping down and cutting him off. He cupped Ethan’s cheek just before his lips crashed into Ethan’s, melding and merging together. Ethan gasped, almost groaned. He reached for Jack, clawing free of the blankets, pulling out of Jack’s hand hold. He had to touch, had to feel Jack. Jack grabbed him in return, hands everywhere, on his face, sliding through his hair, running down his chest, over his hospital gown. He was beside Ethan, and then he was over him, crawling into the hospital bed. Straddling him.

 

Jack’s crotch settled on top of Ethan’s. He pulled back, eyes wide, drawing in a ragged breath.

 

Ethan felt every hard inch of him. His lips moved, soundlessly.

 

Jack nodded, like he was nodding to himself, answering his own questions, questions he’d carried within him and cried out over Ethan. “Ethan, my God. I’ve missed you so much.”

 


 

Ethan was released a week later.

 

Jack took a few pictures of Ethan smiling and waving from his hospital bed and posted them on Twitter. It was the most Retweeted and liked Tweet of the year, with millions of well wishes and hearts sent their way. Jack started taking calls from Congress again, and gave interviews to CNN from the hospital’s hallway, chiming in on the investigations that had begun. General Madigan, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, claimed ownership of the lead investigation, saying he would be the objective outside eyes, responsible for overseeing the review of America’s national security and intelligence failings in this attack.

 

Gutierrez’s poll ratings continued to fall. He flung blame every direction he could, and started to avoid the media, the spotlight. Rumors from the White House started hitting the national news, saying that Gutierrez was on the warpath, that he wanted to invade the Middle East again, strike back at whomever had tried to kill him.

 

Russia loudly protested any Middle East inclusion. President Puchkov went on camera day after day, insinuating Gutierrez was weak and America was on the decline. What else could explain how their White House, their castle, was taken over? The last time that had happened, America had been a fledgling, weak nation. Perhaps the same was true again.

 

Jack helped Ethan out of the hospital, checking him out late at night to avoid the media circus. They slipped into Jack’s SUV in the hospital’s garage, and Jack checked him over a dozen times on the half hour drive from Bethesda to Ethan’s condo. Jack let Ethan lean on him as they walked in.

 

Ethan had given Jack his keys a few days before, so Jack could get some food and essentials. He should have known better. He should have known Jack would pull something.

 

He walked into a carpet of rose petals, a scattered trail across his hardwood. Unlit candles lined the path, splitting to his bedroom and to his couch, in the living room. His kitchen lights were on, soft and low, casting a glow across his unit. The biggest vase of roses he’d ever seen sat in the middle of his table.

 

“Jack…”

 

His eyes landed on three suitcases tucked into a corner. “Are those yours?”

 

“I haven’t unpacked anything. I’ll only stay over if you want me to. But I want to be here with you. Help you, if you need it. And, I just don’t want to leave your side.” Jack laced his hand through Ethan’s.

 

“I’d love it if you stayed.”

 

Jack beamed.

 

Ethan’s knees wobbled.

 

Jack helped him to his bedroom. His bed was freshly made, his sheets turned down, and a single red rose lay on his pillow.

 

“I wanted you to know I’m serious,” Jack said softly. “About everything. About us. And I wanted to make it up to you, as much as I could.”

 

“You don’t have anything to make up for.”

 

“I broke your heart. I hurt you, Ethan.”

 

“I should have talked to you. I didn’t tell you what I feeling. And then it all came apart when I couldn’t hold my emotions in check anymore. But I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

 

Jack tucked him in and kissed him sweetly. “I’ll go sleep on the couch.”

 

“No.” Ethan patted the bed beside him. He had more than enough room. “Stay here?”

 

“You’re healing.”

 

“We’re not going to have sex tonight.” Ethan grinned. “These meds… I can’t. But I do want to be close to you. Feel you next to me.”

 

He saw Jack melt, watched his eyes go soft. Jack stripped in front of him, dropping his pants and button-down on the floor. He left his boxers on, and his undershirt, and climbed into bed beside Ethan.

 

It was perfection. Their bodies fit in every way, from the way Jack’s arms wrapped around him to the way their hips aligned, their thighs, their shins. HIs toes wiggled against Jack’s. Jack’s breath tickled his neck. Lips kissed his hair, the curve of his ear.

 

Ethan kissed Jack’s palm and pressed his hand to his own chest, right over his heart.

 


 

On the third day Jack slipped out of bed before dawn and disappeared into the bathroom, Ethan finally figured it out.

 

He stopped Jack the next morning, tugging him back into bed. Jack tried to angle his hips away, tried to cover his crotch. “Let me,” Ethan breathed. He pressed a kiss to Jack’s belly, his hip bone. Pulled down his boxers.

 

Jack’s fingers slid into his hair, and he screamed Ethan’s name when he came, bucking and shaking apart beneath Ethan’s hands and lips. Ethan shimmied up the bed and grinned. Jack grabbed him, kissed him breathless. “I can taste myself,” he moaned. His eyes blazed. “I want to taste you.”

 


 

Ethan took two months’ medical leave, and he spent most every day by Jack’s side. The hearings continued, and Jack bounced between the Capitol and Texas, flying home to meetings with his constituents over the weekend and for afternoons during the middle of the week. He came back, always, to Ethan.

 

Jack helped him visit Arlington, and the graves of his fallen agents. Levi’s grave. He held Ethan’s hand as Ethan wept, kneeling before Levi’s headstone with a fist of white roses in his hands. “I’m so sorry,” Jack had breathed, holding him as the autumn leaves blew around their ankles and over the graves.

 

One weekend, Jack’s roommates planned to head to their own districts, vacating the house completely. Jack invited Ethan over to grill burgers and drink beer and soak up the last of the autumn sun before the weather turned frigid again. Ethan didn’t have a grill in his posh, eighth-floor condo. He happily agreed.

 

They ate and drank and made out in the kitchen, and Jack tried to improve his blow job technique as Ethan clung to the counter. He gave Jack an A+ every time, but still, Jack was determined to keep improving. Or so he said.

 

In the evening, Jack put on Netflix and they curled up on the big couch in the main room together, Jack lying between Ethan’s legs, his head pillowed on Ethan’s chest. They’d ditched their clothes hours before, padding around in just boxers and their undershirts.

 

Jack fell asleep on Ethan after an hour, but Ethan didn’t want to move. He held on to Jack, kissing his hair and stroking his back as the TV droned quietly on.

 

Keys turning in the door made him stiffen. Adrenaline coiled his muscles, shot lightning through his veins.

 

Did he jump up? Did they make a run for it? Fuck, there wasn’t time. The door opened to the couch, to the main room. If they tried to run, they’d be seen. Fuck, fuck. He tried to recall everything he knew about Jack’s roommates. Would they be all right with what they were about to walk in on?

 

Shafer, exhausted, pushed through the door. He stared down at his phone screen, sighing, and didn’t see them, not right away. The glow of the TV caught his eye, though. “Hey-”

 

He stopped, his rubber sole squeaking against the hardwood as his jaw dropped. His gaze darted from Jack, still sleeping, to Ethan, holding him close and staring at Shafer. Shafer blinked, closing his eyes for a long moment. He pointed at Jack, and then at Ethan, his eyebrows shooting up.

 

Ethan nodded. He kissed Jack’s head.

 

Shafer’s jaw dropped farther. He held up his hands and backed away, heading for his stairs down to the basement bedroom he lived in.

 

Ethan waited until his heart had slowed before kissing Jack awake and leading him upstairs. Jack and Watts each had bedrooms on the third floor, and Karthi had the master suite on the second. Jack pulled him into his bedroom – simple, with a queen bed and a dresser, a throw rug and a window seat overlooking the backyard – and then tugged him into bed. The kissed, and kissed, and kissed, until Jack rolled onto his back and shimmied out of his boxers. Ethan pulled away-

 

But Jack pulled him back. He reached for Ethan’s boxers and started tugging them down. “I want this.”

 

They’d done hands and mouths and had made out for hours with their boxers on, but Ethan had always pulled away from being completely, 100 percent naked in bed with Jack. Had always kept something between them. He wasn’t ready for that yet, wasn’t ready for Jack to freak out and run away if things went sideways. “Are you sure?”

 

“Completely.” Jack smiled, and kissed him again.

 

Ethan’s boxers fell over the side of the bed.

 


 

Jack kissed Ethan awake, until Ethan muffled his screams in Jack’s pillow as Jack sucked him dry. He repaid the favor, flipping Jack and devouring him, his thumbs just barely grazing the cleft of Jack’s ass. Jack kept pushing down, as if he wanted more, wanted Ethan to go further. But Ethan held back. Not yet.

 

After, breathless, he confessed Shafer’s unexpected homecoming the night before. “He saw us. On the couch.”

 

Jack blinked. Shrugged. “Okay.”

 

“Aren’t you concerned? Don’t you want to keep this secret?”

 

“Not particularly, no. I was thinking we’d be more public, sometime soon. Go on a date. Not hide. Whoever sees sees.”

 

Ethan shook his head. “Jack, no. What about your constituents? What about running for president?”

 

“What about it?”

 

“You can’t run for president if you’re dating me.”

 

“Who says I can’t?”

 

“Jack…”

 

“If people like my policies and like my positions, then they’ll vote for me. If they don’t, then they won’t. Who I am sleeping with doesn’t matter in that equation.”

 

“You know that’s not true. You know it’s not.”

 

“I’m not hiding this, Ethan. I don’t care who says what, or what happens. I’m not treating you like a dirty secret. I’m not going to be one of those senators. I’m not ashamed of you, or of us.”

 

Damn it, it was because of Jack’s heart, his character, that Ethan had fallen for him in the first place. And now, it was going to get Jack into a world of trouble, Ethan just fucking knew.

 


 

Shafer was reading the morning paper in the kitchen when they came down. He sipped his coffee and stared at them both over the rim. “Morning, you two.”

 

“Morning.” Jack grinned and grabbed two coffee cups. He made a point of kissing Ethan as he brought Ethan’s coffee to the island.

 

Shafer snorted. “So… I take it this is why you held that hospital vigil? And where you’ve been disappearing to for the past few months?”

 

“Yes to both.”

 

“I… had no idea. You guys kept it really quiet.”

 

“It’s new.” Jack stirred a spoonful of sugar into his coffee. “We weren’t dating before.”

 

Shafer frowned. “I assume this relationship, and your sexuality, Jack, are part of those deep DC secrets? The ones we bury in the Potomac and never speak of?”

 

“No. It’s not a secret. I want to go public with us.”

 

“Okay, Jack.” Shafer leaned forward. “Listen. What do you think your constituents in Texas will do if you come out? They’ll start screaming that you lied, that you hid your sexuality. You’ll be tanked.”

 

“Texas is changing. We had the first transgender mayor in the nation. Texans spoke out and refused to allow their legislature to restrict bathroom usage by any transgender individual. Our courts have heard challenges to the marriage equality ruling by SCOTUS, but have upheld the ruling every time. Yes, there are bigots. There are discriminatory assholes there. But there’s also compassion and equality and a hunger for… basic human decency. I believe that’s why I was elected. I beat out the old conservative hate-monger who used to hold the seat. Texans wanted change.”

 

“But their senator coming out as gay might be a bridge too far.”

 

“I’m bi.”

 

Shafer glared at him. “Good luck hosting a town hall in Houston explaining that difference. Look, your state will be in turmoil. You’ll face an uphill reelection. The GOP will probably primary someone against you, and use your relationship to attack you. You’re doing great work in Congress. Do you really want to open yourself up to those attacks?”

 

“Do I really want to live a lie? Keep my relationship with Ethan, the most meaningful part of my life, in the shadows? You’re asking me to get in a closet. Live in shame.”

 

“I’m asking you to think about the bigger picture. You can’t imagine it will be all roses and sunshine. There will be consequences. Especially in your jacked-up political party.”

 

“Then maybe I won’t be a Republican anymore.”

 

Shafer snorted. “You wanna become a Democrat? Texans will really go nuts then.”

 

“What about something different? Something brand new? Something no one has ever seen before?”

 


 

They decided to come out at Gutierrez’s first state dinner.

 

The British Prime Minister was coming to DC, working on a joint military operation with President Gutierrez that the Russians were trying to tear down on every news channel. Tensions thrummed around the world, with Russian military units buzzing US units in the Middle East. Madigan still hadn’t found out who had sent the attackers, he said, but he was certain that they had to respond, and fast. Nervous, errant shots fired across battle lines almost every day. One day, a stray bullet was going to cause a war, Jack kept saying on CNN. This was the time to talk, not the time to plan a new war.

 

The buzz around Jack as a potential contender for the presidency grew louder.

 

Jack picked out matching tuxes for him and Ethan, along with yellow cummerbunds and yellow roses for their lapels. “It’s the yellow rose of Texas,” he said to Ethan’s bemused smile. “It’s meaningful to my state.”

 

Ethan had just come back on light duty a few weeks before, per his doctor. He assigned Scott and Harry to lead the state dinner’s security team. Welby had taken Levi’s spot in the detail, but Ethan couldn’t quite make himself accept that. Not yet.

 

He didn’t tell Scott, or Harry, or anyone. He made sure the guest list read, “Senator Spiers, plus guest.”

 

“We need to vet this guest of Spiers!” Scott grumbled. “We need to run a security check.”

 

“Look, I’m sure it’s going to be fine. He probably has good reason for not informing us of his guest’s particulars yet. We’ll keep to the same procedures we always do for last minute changes. On-the-spot criminal checks. It will be fine.”

 

“Fucking Senators. Thinking they can do anything.”

 

Ethan tried to hide his smile.

 

He left early that day and went home, where Jack was already busy getting ready. He slipped into the shower with Jack, and when they were finally finished, they were running late. They dressed quickly, slipping into their tuxes and cummerbunds and fixing their boutonnieres to their lapels.

 

“Are you absolutely certain you want to do this, Jack?”

 

Jack cupped his cheeks and looked into his eyes. “I am one hundred percent certain. If there is a choice between a political future and a future with you, then I chose the future with you.”

 

God, Jack could shake the world with that strength of conviction. He’d already overturned Ethan’s world, had shaken his entire existence out of orbit. “I want to be with you forever. But I’m okay with whatever that looks like.”

 

“It is going to look like this.” Jack took his hand, and led him out of the door.

 


 

The receiving line for state dinners was always the worst part. Guests waited for a picture with the president and his guest of honor, each attendee getting about twenty seconds with the president before the photo. At over three hundred guests, twenty seconds added up fast. It took a little over an hour for Jack and Ethan to move through the line.

 

Ethan watched Scott, watched him manage Gutierrez. Scott had his constipated look on, the one he always accused Ethan of wearing whenever they were out of the White House and on alert. He smiled.

 

Jack linked their arms at the elbows. His hand rested on Ethan’s forearm. Ethan squeezed his hand and met Jack’s gaze. There were only two people in front of them.

 

He saw the moment Scott recognized him. Saw Scott’s jaw drop and his face blanch. Saw Scott’s eyes dart to Jack, and then recognition crash into him. Anyone could have knocked Scott over with a leaf at that moment.

 

The greeter ushered them forward, taking their name cards. “Mr. President,” he said, addressing Gutierrez. “Senator Jack Spiers and Mr. Ethan Reichenbach.”

 

They stepped forward, arms entwined, Ethan’s hand firmly covering Jack’s. “Mr. President.”

 

Gutierrez stared, stunned into silence. He looked at Ethan, and then at Jack. “I…” He blinked. “Agent Reichenbach. I had no idea.”

 

Jack smiled, kept smiling, laughing at the world, inside his head. Ethan could almost hear his chuckles. He grinned, and winked at Scott. “Mr. President, it’s an interesting experience being here as a guest.”

 

Gutierrez recovered quickly. “Well, I hope you both have a fantastic time tonight. Senator, we really need to get together. Try and talk things through.”

 

“I couldn’t agree more, Mr. President.”

 

They shook hands with Gutierrez and the British Prime Minister, posed for their photo, and  turned away. Before they did, Ethan felt Scott’s hand on his elbow. “You son of a bitch,” Scott whispered in his ear.

 

When he turned to snap something back at Scott, Ethan saw the warm happiness filling Scott’s eyes, the smile he’d failed to smother. He grinned back.

 

Dinner was a blur, a mix of shocked faces and people exclaiming over and over that they didn’t know, that they were so happy for them both. Ethan and Jack shared bites of food and drank too much champagne, until Jack couldn’t keep his hands off Ethan’s leg beneath the table.

 

Dinner turned to dancing, and they moved to the ballroom hand in hand. Jack led Ethan onto the dance floor for the goofiest moves, song after song. Eventually, a slow song came on, and Ethan pulled Jack into his arms, aligned their bodies from their knees to their chests. Jack held him close, beaming.

 

“I think this went well.”

 

“It’s going to be all over the internet. All over the news tomorrow.”

 

“Bring it on.”

 

Ethan laughed. “You’re amazing. Doing this. Taking this chance, with me.”

 

You’re amazing, Ethan.” Jack smiled again, his eyes changing, going soft. He licked his lips, held Ethan’s gaze. “Wanna know something else that’s not a secret?”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“I love you, Ethan Reichenbach.”

 

Ethan’s heart burst. He was certain Jack could feel it. He gasped, tried to control the smile that was breaking his face. If anyone looked at them, they would know, for sure, that Jack had just told Ethan he loved him for the very first time.

 

“I love you, Jack. I love you so much it scares me. I’d do anything for you. For us.”

 

“Will you be with me when I announce my new political party tomorrow?”

 

“Yes. For you, yes.”

 

“Will you be my first gentleman, if I become president?”

 

“You will be president, Jack. I know it. And you know I’m with you all the way.”

 


 

Timestamp: Alternate Universe! This never happened! 🙂

 

Jack’s First Thanksgiving – Missing Scene from Interlude

 

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


 

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

 

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

 

Holding him up against the world.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Was it any wonder?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

Except, he couldn’t.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

One hour, forty-five minutes.

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Now he just had to convince his parents.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Have a good time, Mr. President.”

 

“Thank you, Agent Collard.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I’m okay.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He knew the feeling.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Is there anything you guys can do?”

 

“I can resign.”

 

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

 

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

 

“Don’t let them. Don’t buckle.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You would regret it forever.”

 

Slowly, Jack nodded.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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