Jack’s First Thanksgiving – Missing Scene from Interlude

 

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


 

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

 

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

 

Holding him up against the world.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Was it any wonder?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

Except, he couldn’t.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

One hour, forty-five minutes.

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Now he just had to convince his parents.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Have a good time, Mr. President.”

 

“Thank you, Agent Collard.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I’m okay.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He knew the feeling.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Is there anything you guys can do?”

 

“I can resign.”

 

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

 

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

 

“Don’t let them. Don’t buckle.”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You would regret it forever.”

 

Slowly, Jack nodded.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

 

 

Second Excerpt from Kris’s Story

 

Welcome to this week’s Bauer’s Bytes!

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


 

Tashkent, Uzbekistan

September 21st, 2001

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else was new?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smart. What’s the weather like?”

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

 

 * * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 * * *

 

Marhaaba.”

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

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

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

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

“From the island?”

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

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

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

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

“You speak Spanish, too?”

Sie. Y tu?”

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

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

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

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

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

Kris crouched, hiding his groan. Not more shit.

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

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

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

“Twenties and hundreds.”

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

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

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

Haddad stared at him. “Good?”

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

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

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

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

Shit. He was fucked.

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

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

No, he couldn’t go there.

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

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

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

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

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

He wouldn’t have time for crushing on Haddad.

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

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

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

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

Cheeks burning, Kris took the beanie.

 

 * * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he was too damn cold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haddad wrapped one arm around him and pulled him close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One minute!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

 

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

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

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

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

Happy Reading!

 


 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sasha… please…”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Let me protect you?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sergey! Where the hell are you?”

 

Sasha froze.

 

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

 

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

 

The bedroom door pushed open.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Ilya—”

 

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

 

Ilya—”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sergey turned to Sasha.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“That doesn’t change what he did.”

 

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

 

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

 

“And?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You think he’s using me—”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“We are going to keep it quiet, yes.”

 

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

 

“Ilya—”

 

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

 

Sergey twisted, staring over his shoulder. Ilya froze.

 

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

 

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

 

If so, then why had—

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Please. Don’t… try to push…

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Their eyes met.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Gone to a hockey game?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sergey’s breath hitched.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Would Sasha leave?

 

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

 

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

 


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

 

 

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

 

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


 

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

He needed a break.

“So… what are we doing for Halloween?”

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

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

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

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

Ethan lowered his head, hiding his smile.

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

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

“Where’d your mind go?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

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

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

He conspicuously didn’t gesture to Jack.

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every gay man hides parts of himself.”

“Even now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack’s breath hitched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

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

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

Ethan flushed. “Things can get… kinky.”

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

“Your birthday was great.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack beamed. “You.”

“What?”

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

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

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

“I’d… have to wear your yellow tie.”

“That can be arranged.”

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

Jack sighed. His shoulders slumped.

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

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

Ethan smiled.

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

Ethan wanted to shut the door on their faces.

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

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

“Arm wrestling contest?”

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

“What the hell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please, let this last.

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

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

“I’m excited. I want to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Beech and Welby are here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan looked at Jack. Jack stared back.

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

Ethan moaned.

Their eyes met.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack beamed. “We are!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then it’s time to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

“All that gayness?”

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

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

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

“Maybe… one day… we could go back?”

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

 


 

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

 

Excerpt from Kris’s Story

 

Hello! Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

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

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


 

September 15th, 2001

Langley, Virginia

 

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

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

A full motorcade waited for them.

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

“George Tabat? CIA Director?”

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

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

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

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

“Who else will be there?”

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone looked at him. Everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kris jumped in. “There’s Yemen.”

“Yemen?” The vice president frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

September 17th, 2001

Sanaa, Yemen

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing. It was like the FBI agents were statues.

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

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

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

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

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

The FBI agents shared a long look.

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

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

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

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

“We already know they’re responsible.”

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

“What else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Wa alaikum as-salaam.”

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

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

Nam.” Yes.

“Yet you are an infidel?”

Nam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abu Tadmir blew smoke into Kris’s face.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then the war will continue.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nam.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think you do.”

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

“Are you certain?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

“He is your friend?”

Nam.”

“You are both in al-Qaeda together?”

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

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

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

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

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

“When did you last speak with your friends?”

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

“Training with Bin Laden?”

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

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

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

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

“So you support the attacks?”

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

Kris stopped breathing. “How so?”

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

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

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

“I am chasing who committed the attacks.”

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

You committed the attacks.”

“What?”

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

“No—”

“Al-Qaeda hijacked these planes.

“No—”

“Al-Qaeda murdered all those people.”

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

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

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

“I was told al-Qaeda did it.”

“By who?”

You.”

Silence.

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

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

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

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

“You tell me. You’re al-Qaeda.”

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

“These men, they are all al-Qaeda?”

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

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

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

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

“Everything.”

 

 

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

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

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

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

 


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

 

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

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

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

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

Happy Reading!


 

Jack is so peaceful when he sleeps.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

If it weren’t for Ethan

 

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

 

Sergey squeezed shut his eyes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Why had Sasha left him?

 

Why had Sasha kissed him?

 

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

 

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

 

Wasn’t it?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He wouldn’t let Sasha get into the jet.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What could they have had, though?

 

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

 

They could have had a true first kiss.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I wish you were Sasha.

 

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

 

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

 

Until Sasha had stolen his soul.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fuck.

 

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

 

Sasha.

 

“Jack.”

 

Jack froze. He didn’t breathe.

 

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

 

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

 

Silence.

 

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

 

“Jack.”

 

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

 

“Sergey?” A single word, a question.

 

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

 

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

 

“Sergey, I—” Sasha said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sergey… Are you saying you’re—”

 

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

 

Sergey inhaled, waiting for the blow.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“No?”

 

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

 

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

 

“No. I never did.”

 

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

 

“So you hid what you felt?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Is it… just Sasha?”

 

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

 

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

 

But it wouldn’t have been the same.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sergey—”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sasha… I love you.  

 


 

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

 

My Soul Spills Into Yours – Faisal & Adam, pre-Enemies of the State

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! This one is a LONG one! This week, we’re going back to Adam and Faisal, pre-Enemies of the State.  This is part of Adam & Faisal’s continuing prequel story set before The Executive Office series, and takes place after How To (not) Say Goodbye, also featuring Adam & Faisal. You should read that before reading this Byte.

This Byte delves into complicated issues of family and obligation in Arab and Middle Eastern cultures.

 


 

 

Twenty-six days.

 

Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and thirty-seven minutes.

 

Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and thirty-eight minutes, as the clock continued to move.

 

Faisal closed his eyes, bowing his head. Stillness enveloped him. The folds of his thawb, a whisper on his skin, burned like fire, like chains of lead restraining him in his uncle’s golden palace.

 

Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and thirty-nine minutes since Adam had been taken from him. Since Uncle Abdul had followed him and Adam to his Gulf house, and burst in on them in his bedroom. Ya Allah, the day had been so perfect. Had he and Adam ever kissed so sweetly? Had Adam ever unfolded so completely beneath his touch? Had his own heart ever beat as hard as it had as he whispered poetry he’d longed to confess to Adam’s soul?

 

He’d been so close. So very, very close to confessing it all. His love, and then after, when Adam was in his arms, he was going to confess the rest. Who he was, truly. He’d prayed, endless du’a to Allah asking if this was the right course, the right choice. Was it right to try and go further with Adam, to try and make something lasting. Something deep, and real. It had felt right in his soul. It had felt good, like the settling of some deep answer, a shift in his entire sense of self, his world, his everything – reaching out to Adam with his whole heart was right.

 

It was supposed to be then, that day. The words were on his lips. Adam was in his heart.

 

It was supposed to be beautiful.

 

Ya Allah, how had it all gone wrong?

 

Was it a sign? Was this divine intervention, a message he should not ignore? Was this Allah answering his prayers, guiding him away from Adam? Or was this a test, a challenge to his convictions, his passion? What would be overcome, to be with Adam?

 

Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and forty minutes since he’d seen Adam’s face. Touched his skin. Looked into his eyes, and seen something that looked like love.

 

Uncle Abdul had banished Adam, barely letting him dress before his uncle’s bodyguards had shoved Adam into the SUV and roared off, heading for Kuwait. Never mind that Adam had a flight booked out of Riyadh. He was to be dumped in Kuwait, just one foot over the border, and that was to be the end of that.

 

He and his uncle had argued, bitterly so, for hours after. How unfair it was to Adam. How Uncle Abdul had been wrong about them, that it wasn’t Adam using Faisal. Uncle Abdul didn’t want to know, and he didn’t seem to care.

 

“He is alive still because he is useful, ya Faisal!” Uncle Abdul had roared. “Speak no more of this!”

 

Shaking, Faisal had made it back to Uncle Abdul’s palace in Riyadh, surrounded by bodyguards. They left him in his old rooms, the wing of his uncle’s massive palace that had been his own, along with Uncle Abdul’s natural children, so long ago. His uncle’s children – his cousins – were long gone. Long, long gone. For years, he’d been the only one to visit his uncle, the only child to return to his home. For an Arab family, the empty home, devoid of the children of the father, was a black hole of despair, and an unspeakable, unutterable tragedy.

 

He’d haunted Uncle Abdul’s palace. The first few days, he’d kept quiet, out of sight. Dressed in his thawb and his ghutra, and kept his eyes down. Spent hours in the musalla, the prayer room within the palace.

 

Eyes followed him everywhere.

 

A week passed, and still nothing from his uncle. He asked to see Uncle Abdul, but was rebuffed. Spend more time in the musalla, the note from his uncle said.

 

Faisal’s days passed in silence and solitude, picturing Adam’s face, the taste of his lips. The way his eyes had looked, just before Faisal had wanted to whisper that he loved him.

 

After ten days, the thawb was a straightjacket, scratching at his skin and his soul, and the silence of the palace was shattering his mind. He’d escaped the solitude of his childhood, he’d thought, but the cage was settling around him again. He had to escape. He had to get back to Baghdad. To Adam.

 

His uncle had forbidden him.

 

“You will not return to Baghdad.”

 

“But… uncle, my work. I have important work to do in Iraq. I’ve been collecting intelligence—”

 

His uncle’s sharp glare had cut off his words. “That was not the work you were sent to do, ya Faisal.”

 

“I have done more, much more, than just connect with Adam—”

 

“Do not speak his name!” Flushed, Uncle Abdul’s face had twisted, puffy and red with rage, his eyes narrowed and burning with wrath. “That name is never to be spoken again! It will never cross your lips!”

 

He’d stilled. Everything in him, his heart, his blood, his breath, had stopped. “Uncle… I—”

 

“It is forbidden!” Uncle Abdul had roared. “Forbidden! You are not to leave this house! You are to remain here, within these walls! You will pray, ya Faisal! Rahimullah, you will pray to Allah all day long!”

 

“Uncle, maa shaa Allah, I am at peace with Allah! You cannot keep me here!”

 

“I am your uncle! I am responsible for you, ya Faisal! You will remain here!” Uncle Abdul’s bellow had echoed, his roars bouncing off the gilded walls and vibrating the rubies and sapphires in their mosaics. Curtains shivered, and somewhere, glass tinkled, far off. His uncle took a shaking breath, one meaty finger thrust toward Faisal. “You will remain. You will not leave without my permission.”

 

The days rolled on, an endless smear of prayer and sun and sand. He lost the taste for almonds and dates, for mango juice and yogurt. The silence of the palace enslaved him, solitude not of relaxation, but of prison. Even his prayers were troubled, pleas in his du’a to Allah feeling hollow in the emptiness of his chest.

 

He and Adam hadn’t spoken since a last furtive text he’d sent while dressing, before Uncle Abdul spirited him back to Riyadh. A poem, one he’d wanted to whisper to Adam’s skin, a confession in his breath on Adam’s belly. If they never spoke again, he wanted Adam to know. In shaa Allah, he had to know that he was loved.

 

It was never about the intel for me, he’d confessed. I wanted to keep seeing you.

 

He’d craved Adam, from that first night on. Bismillah, from the first moment, and every moment after, his soul had been drawn to Adam, like a comet captured in the orbit of a star.

 

Shared intelligence was just a way to keep seeing him. An excuse, what he used before he was able to say that he just wanted to see Adam because he desired to.

 

If he could, he’d text him again. Call, and hear his voice. Listen to him breathe, and sleep. Wait up all night for his gentle snores, so precious to his heart.

 

But Uncle Abdul had taken his phone, like he’d done when he was a child. He wasn’t a child, he was a man, but he was still like a son to Uncle Abdul, and his uncle was the only father he’d known, after his own had died. He could not go against his uncle, like he could not go against his father.

 

Twenty-six days, twelve hours, forty-nine minutes.

 

He was atomizing in his uncle’s house, turning to dust and sand. His soul was atrophying, decaying in the silence of the musalla, withering beneath the distance and despair of his uncle. The distance was soul-shattering, so different than their past. They’d spent hours in the gardens, walking and talking, Faisal learning about the Kingdom and the world from his uncle’s stories and experience.

 

The withdrawal of his uncle’s affection, his attention, was like the sea pulling away from shore, a low tide that went on and on, the sea continuing to creep further and further away, never to return.

 

Should he stay?

 

He’d been touched by the West too much, to even think the thought. Before university in London, and before spending time with Westerners, he’d never have thought, not ever, to go against his family’s wishes. His uncle knew best. His uncle’s word was absolute. He was thankful for his uncle for everything in his life, most especially for his love, and the life he’d been raised in. How dare he now think to turn his back on that love.

 

But… In shaa Allah, he had to be free.

 

Twenty-six days, twelve hours, and fifty-one minutes. He made up his mind.

 

His uncle had left earlier, disappearing with his contingent of bodyguards. The house servants had been reduced since Faisal had returned, most of them gone, the halls empty.

 

It was easy to slip into his uncle’s study unseen.

 

He found his phone, and then his charger, thrown into the bottom of his uncle’s desk drawer. The phone was off. He powered it up, waiting anxiously for the signal to connect, for his messages to come in. Had Adam texted? Had he reached out during these long, long twenty-six days?

 

Faisal’s gaze caught on his uncle’s laptop, open on his desk.

 

A video had been playing. His uncle had paused the feed. Frozen, an Imam glowered out of the screen, harsh eyes and a falcon’s gaze searing Faisal’s spine across the internet. This was not a gentle man, not a kind man. The Imam was a divisive force of hate and fundamentalism, a lightning rod of extremism in the Kingdom. Why was his uncle listening to the man?

 

Was his uncle a follower of the Imam? His numbers, his followers, had grown. He was building a base of firebrand fundamentalism, charging up Muslims living in pain in the Kingdom with visions of retribution, pointing fingers to assign blame at anything he could.

 

Slowly, Faisal reached for the keyboard. “Astaghfirullah,” he whispered. I take refuge in Allah; forgive me. He clicked play.

 

The video must have been made after Friday prayers. Someone off screen was asking the Imam a question, and the Imam was answering anything his followers asked.

 

Faisal’s blood chilled as the words washed over him.

 

“Imam, I must ask. What do we do if we find a homosexual among us? What do we do with them?”

 

The Imam’s expression darkened. His scowl deepened. He raised one hand, pointing to the sky. “I tell you, surely there is no place in this world for people like that. There is no place for people who sin, who go against Allah. If you find a homosexual in your midst, it is permissible to kill them. Better they be dead than live in sin.”

 

He slammed the laptop closed. His phone chimed and chimed again. His mind swam, the Imam’s words echoing over and over, a gong ringing in his skull. Permissible to kill them. Better they be dead.

 

His uncle – his uncle! – had been watching this.

 

He had to get out. He had to escape. Was his uncle planning on killing him? Was he to be murdered, an honor killing to assuage the guilt of his uncle, that he’d nurtured such a sinner? Was he to be erased from the world, discarded and forgotten? Who would remember him if he died?

 

Adam.

 

His phone chimed again, a series of messages finally arriving. He tried to read them, but his eyes were blurring, tears building and falling down his cheeks every time he blinked.

 

[Faisal… Are you coming back? When can I see you again?]

 

[Are you in Baghdad?]

 

[Did… you change your mind? Do you want me to stop texting you?]

 

[I’m worried, Faisal. Please. Just tell me you’re okay. I’ll stop. I’ll leave you alone. Just as long as you’re all right.]

 

[Faisal… please. Please. Be okay. Please.]

 

He texted back, finally, twenty-six days, twelve hours, fifty-five minutes late. His fingers trembled as he tried to type. Adam. I’m here. I’m so sorry. I didn’t have my phone.

 

[Faisal???????????]

 

[OMG, where are you? Are you okay???]

 

No. No, I’m not okay. It’s not safe here.

 

[Where are you???? I’ll come get you. Are you in danger??]

 

In Saudi. But I’m leaving. Right now. I have to.

 

[Come here. Come to Baghdad. We’ll figure something out.]

 

Okay. Yes. Okay. I’m going to the airport. I’ll be on the next flight.

 

[I will pick you up.]

 

He ran, racing across the palace back to his rooms. He changed, flinging his thawb across the room and pulling on his suit, the one he’d worn to pick up Adam from the airport. He had a single bag, his Quran, and a roomful of memories. Did he take anything with him?

 

No. Not after that video. He’d take nothing.

 

His phone chimed. [Faisal… I’ve been so fucking afraid.]

 

He ran for the garage and took one of the cars. A dark SUV, one that would blend into the thousands of other cars in Riyadh. He peeled out, zooming down the drive and almost scraping through the gate before it had opened fully. He nearly stripped the mirrors off the doors, bottomed out the SUV on the road, squealed the tires as he turned down the road.

 

On the way to the airport, screaming down the highway, he texted back. I have yearned for you every moment we’ve been apart. My every thought has been of you.

 

He dropped his phone in his lap and focused on racing to the airport, weaving in and out of cars. He felt his phone vibrate against his leg, but didn’t look until after he’d parked.

 

[‘The real beloved is that one who is unique,

who is your beginning and your end.

When you find that one,

you’ll no longer expect anything else:

that is both the manifest and the mystery.’]

 

His eyes blurred again, tears slipping down to his chin in hot trails. Adam had sent a poem, a love poem of Rumi.

 

You are my beginning and my end, Adam.

 

[Get here. Please.]

 

He used his royal status to get onto the very next flight leaving, a delivery jet running up to Baghdad and back that afternoon. He sat in the unused third pilot’s seat on the jet, clinging to the seatbelt harness until they were in the air.

 

Two hours later, they landed at Baghdad international Airport.

 

I landed. I’m on the industrial side of the airport. Flew up on a delivery jet.

 

[I’m waiting in the American side. Let me get over there.]

 

It took some time for the pilots to taxi across the airport and past the passenger terminals. They pulled up to a hangar, finally, and Faisal followed the pilots down to the tarmac.

 

“Faisal!”

 

And there he was.

 

Twenty-six days, fifteen hours, and eight minutes vanished.

 

Adam jogged across the tarmac, leaving behind his black, US government-issue, not-undercover-at-all SUV, and headed for Faisal. Faisal jogged for him as well, his throat clenching, his chest burning. His eyes were blurring again.

 

Adam’s arms wrapped around him, a crushing hug, and he almost collapsed against Adam’s broad chest. He buried his face in Adam’s neck, inhaling the scent of diesel fuel, sand, sweat, and a tang that was all Adam. It was ambrosia for his soul, and Faisal breathed it in, held Adam in his lungs.

 

They were still in the Middle East, though, and in relative public. Faisal pulled back, his legs shaking, and laid his hand on Adam’s shoulder. Adam mirrored him, one hand on Faisal’s waist. Leaning in, Faisal placed a kiss on Adam’s cheek, as Adam did the same, twice. To an observer, it would look like they were saying a cultural hello, a Middle Eastern hello. But their lips were touching skin, lingering on each other’s cheeks, and that was pushing all of the lines.

 

“Let me take you home,” Adam breathed.

 

* * *

 

Adam’s apartment was a studio in the renovated Green Zone, one studio in a complex that housed hundreds of American contractors, defense personnel, State department officials, and undercover intelligence officers, like Adam. He had a couple bare lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, a thin, stained carpet, a lumpy couch, and an electric plate and one tin pot. He had a coffeemaker, too, plugged into a bewildering array of plug and electricity converters. One coffee cup.

 

He slept on a cot in the corner, military issue, on top of his sleeping bag and under a thin sheet. Usually. But when Faisal started slipping into his apartment, and they stole night after night together, Adam spread out blankets on the ground, enough to make a cozy nest for two. Two pillows nuzzled side by side, and, hidden out of sight, beneath his cot and his spare boots, there was a bottle of lube Faisal had brought and left.

 

They barely made it into Adam’s apartment before their hands were on each other.

 

Faisal slammed Adam against the thin wall, shaking the lights above. He tore Adam’s shirt off, pawed at his pants. Sank down to his knees before Adam could respond. As he sucked, he stripped, shedding his own suit jacket and button down as he moaned around the taste of Adam, the hardness in his mouth.

 

They made it to the blankets. Faisal slithered down Adam’s body, kept up his mouth’s lovemaking. Adam shivered and trembled, trying to reach for every inch of Faisal he could reach. Fingers slid through his hair, slid down his back. Hands gripped his biceps. Adam’s thighs wrapped around his shoulders, his head, as he dropped his tongue lower.

 

Faisal stared down into Adam’s eyes as he slid within his body. Adam’s back bowed, and his mouth puckered, a silent, trembling O formed by his lips. Faisal ran his hands up and down the back of Adam’s thighs, a gentle caress. “Adam,” he whispered, drowning in the pools of Adam’s gaze, the stars reflected in his pupils, in the Acacia warmth of his brown irises. “Adam…”

 

Ana bahibak trembled on the edge of his lips.

 

Adam’s hands threaded through his hair again, pulled him down. They kissed, their lips merging, becoming one.

 

“‘My soul spills into yours and is blended / Because my soul has absorbed your fragrance’.” Faisal moaned, a breathless whisper, as he pressed his words into Adam’s cheek, his neck, his collarbone with whispers and open-mouthed kisses. Pulling back, he rocked his hips, rolled himself deeper within Adam’s body. Adam bucked, clinging to him. “‘This is love’,” Faisal whispered. His words shook. He closed his eyes and buried his face in Adam’s neck. “‘To fly toward a secret sky’.”

 

Stars were falling from Adam’s eyes, glistening on his skin, his cheeks. Faisal kissed each one, taking Adam’s salt, the taste of him. They moved together, hands and lips and legs moving as one, bodies entwined. Adam began to tremble and never stopped.

 

Close, they both were close. Faisal could feel it, in the way Adam moved, the way his breath hitched. The way he tried to climb Faisal’s body, pull Faisal deeper into himself. His fingers scraped up Faisal’s back, nails scratching over his skin like a brand. Wallah, he loved this, loved making love to Adam. Loved sending Adam to the delirious heights of passionate pleasure. Just a little more, and Adam would fly apart. He pulled Adam closer, tilted his hips up. Cradled his lover, and cupped his face as he thrust. “‘I swear, since seeing your face / the whole world has become fraud and fantasy’.”

 

“Faisal!” Adam grasped his arms, squeezing tight, clenching. Everything in him was clenching, his entire body, and even his soul seemed to strum, vibrating on Faisal’s endless lovemaking. Adam gasped, sucking in breath after breath, and stared wide-eyed into Faisal’s gaze. “Faisal… Ana bahibak. Ana bahibak, ya hayati.”

 

Faisal’s soul went supernova, exploding in a billion shards of light. His heart erupted, and he captured Adam’s lips as he surged, as they surged together, bursting apart in each other’s arms.

 

* * *

 

Much, much later, they talked.

 

Adam kept the lights off after dark. No one needed to be looking in with ease, spying on their silhouettes lounging together on the floor, or moving together in a very specific way. They burned one candle inside the tin pot, diffusing the glow across their faces as they laid together.

 

Faisal couldn’t stop touching Adam. He couldn’t keep his hands off Adam’s chest, his stomach, his elbow. He had to touch, feel his lover. Twenty-six days, fifteen hours and eight minutes was too long to be apart from Adam. Had they been apart even a fraction of that time since the first night?

 

Adam was shy about his confession. He looked down, away from Faisal, a flush rising on his cheeks when Faisal tried to hold his gaze.

 

“Did you not mean it?” he asked. “Was it… just the moment?”

 

“I meant it.” Adam played with the edge of a sheet, spinning the fabric in a spiral. “I mean it. I’ve… fallen in love with you, Faisal.” He snorted and shook his head. “I mean, it’s dumb. Of me. It’s so dumb of me. I can’t fall in love with you. You’re a prince. I’m… nothing.” He sighed. “But I already have. I used to think one day, when this was all over, we could try and be together. When we weren’t…” He waved his hand through the air and sighed again. “When it wasn’t about intel or about politics. But I guess it will always be about politics, huh?”

 

“It doesn’t have to be. I’m nothing in the family. My father is dead. My uncle raised me, but—” He shook his head. He wasn’t ready to talk about his uncle, or the video of the Imam. “I’m nothing. And I never will be.”

 

“Not after what happened?”

 

“Not ever. I’ve never been part of the family’s future.”

 

Adam stared at him, twisting the edge of the sheet. He swallowed. “So… maybe… we could…” He flushed again. “Only if you want. I mean, you never said—”

 

“I love you, ya hayati. Ya qalby.”

 

Adam’s jaw dropped, his mouth hanging open.

 

“I wanted to tell you that day. I was going to tell you everything. Who I really was. That I had fallen in love with you, habibi. That I wanted to have something real with you.”

 

Adam smiled, and he reached for Faisal’s face, cupping his cheek. They kissed slowly, and then not slowly at all, and it was hours before they spoke again.

 

* * *

 

In the middle of the night, Faisal told Adam about his uncle, the Imam, and the video.

 

Adam grabbed both his arms and pulled him close, holding him against his chest. “Fuck, Faisal. Jesus Christ.” His hands shook against Faisal’s skin. “Thank God you got out. Jesus…”

 

“Adam.” He pinched Adam’s arm, gently. “Language.”

 

“Sorry. I just can’t…” Adam swallowed. “I can’t imagine a family doing that. How could he plan that? When he raised you? I just can’t—” His voice cut off, and he shook his head, scowling.

 

“I never thought it was a possibility. Certainly, never from Uncle Abdul.”

 

Adam breathed in his hair, pressed his lips to his scalp and held him close. “You’re away from him. And you’ll never go back there. Ever. You have to stay safe, habibi. We’ll figure out something. I promise.”

 

* * *

 

You’ll never go back there.

 

The words scraped the inside of his skull, a spider building a web within his brain. You’ll never go back there.

 

Never go back.

 

Could he turn his back on his home? His family? His decision to flee had been impulsive, his reach for Adam instinctive. He’d needed Adam, in that moment, and had found the safety and surety he’d needed.

 

What was he to think about Uncle Abdul? Uncle Abdul had given him life that night when he was six years old. Was he the one to take it all away? After all these years, after the life that his uncle had built for him, was it all going to end?

 

Family was built on the shifting sands, millennia of history swirling beneath their feet in the desert of his home. The family – his family – survived the desert, the eddies of history, due to the bonds forged in blood and fire. Family – a word thrown around so casually in the modern world. It meant something to him, to all Arabs. To all in the Middle East. It meant everything. Family – and the man who was as much his father as his own blood father had been – meant everything.

 

And he’d walked out. He walked out on his uncle, the man who raised him, who brought him from boy to man.

 

It is permissible to kill these people.

 

Somehow, someway, it was all going to end. Either he left, severed his ties with his family, cut a part of his soul out of his heart and watched it slowly die, starved of love and connection, or he returned and faced his uncle.

 

He watched Adam sleep for the last hours of the night. Watched the sun rise and the call to prayer break over Baghdad. The cry of the muezzin wailed. It is better to pray than to sleep!

 

He was a devoted man, a man who lived with the love of Allah in his heart. But, for the moment, it was better to lie in the orange glow of dawn and watch Adam breathe.

 

Faisal whispered du’a as Adam slowly stirred, blinking awake and reaching for Faisal. Faisal kissed him, a sleepy, warm kiss of morning and happiness. Adam gazed at him, contentment and peace filling his eyes.

 

You don’t have to do this.

 

Yes. I do. I cannot live with myself if I do not.

 

Habibi… I have to go back.”

 

* * *

 

Adam was furious.

 

“You can’t go! Faisal, they’re planning an honor killing! They are going to murder you!”

 

“I have to go. Bismillah, I have to face my family.”

 

“You don’t! You don’t owe your family anything! Especially if they’re planning on hurting you!”

 

“My uncle is the only real family I have left. I’m Arab, Adam. Family is part of my soul, and I’ve already lost nearly everyone. He is everything I have. Without my family, I am nothing, ya Allah.”

 

“That’s not true. Your family just got you to exist! It’s biology and genetics. Cells combining. That’s all!”

 

“Adam—”

 

“Look, I know how this feels. Kind of. I left my family. I left them, Faisal, and I never looked back. They weren’t trying to murder me, but they weren’t awesome, and I knew I had to find a better life without them. So I left. Forever.”

 

Faisal blinked. He held Adam’s face in both of his hands. “Do you know why I approached you that night?” The night they met, the night under the lanterns, when he’d held Adam’s hand and begged him to go home with him.

 

Slowly, Adam swallowed. He shook his head. “I’ve wondered,” he whispered.

 

“By the light of the lanterns, you looked like the most lonely person in the world, Adam.” He sighed, a gentle breath of air. “My heart called out to you.”

 

“Pity?” Adam scowled and tried to jerk away.

 

“No. Recognition.” Faisal tugged him closer. “We are both orphans, in our ways.”

 

Adam covered his hands, still cupping Adam’s cheeks. “Please… habibi, don’t do this. Don’t go back. We just—”

 

“We are alike in so many ways, ya hayati. But in this, we will always be different. My Arab soul cannot cut my family out of myself. No matter what. I would die, just cutting them out.”

 

“So you’ll let them kill you?”

 

Ya Allah, one way or the other, my soul will die without my family.”

 

Adam’s expression cracked, and he pulled Faisal close, crushing their bodies together. Faisal felt his face burrow into his neck, felt hot trails of Adam’s tears slide down his own skin. “Ana bahibak, Faisal,” Adam whispered, in between shaking breaths. “I could be—”

 

He cut himself off, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes and stepping back. He looked away. “Call me.” His chin wavered. “If you can.”

 

In shaa Allah.”

 

* * *

 

In Riyadh, He took a taxi from the airport to his uncle’s palace. The Bengali driver had never been to the gates of the palace of the Governor of Riyadh, and he trembled as he drove up the long drive to the gate. Five guards raised their rifles at his taxi on the drive up. They only lowered their weapons when Faisal stepped out of the back.

 

The taxi driver was sent away. Faisal was dragged back into the palace.

 

He waited in the grand parlor, his uncle’s sitting room overlooking the gardens. His eyes traced the paths he and his uncle had walked through the roses and the lilies, years and years of walks and conversation flitting through his memories. Uncle Abdul always had time for a walk, had always made time for him, then and now. His uncle had been steadfast in his life, his northern star in his sky.

 

Would his father have been as attentive, had he lived? What would his father do now, if he were here?

 

All stars fell. Everything died, in its time. If this was his time, then inna lillaahi wa innaa ilayhi raaji’oon. To Allah he belonged, and to Allah he would return. His only regret would be that he had such little time with Adam.

 

Footsteps pounded down the palace’s main hall. He closed his eyes. Turned away from the door. His uncle was a sharpshooter, was a master hunter. He’d taught Faisal how to shoot when he was a boy and could barely hold the heavy, antique rifle.

 

Would it be a gun? Or would it be a knife?

 

“Faisal!” His uncle’s bellow, sharp, and lined with shock. “Ya Faisal! Subhanallah, Faisal!” Footsteps crossed the parlor, slamming on the marble—

 

Hands grabbed his arms, whirled him around. His uncle stood before him, holding him in a bruising grip. His eyes were wild, mad, darting over his body, up and down, searching him from head to toe. “Where have you been, ya Faisal? Where have you been?” Uncle Abdul shook him, in time with his shouts.

 

His voice fled. The words wouldn’t come. They jammed against the block in his throat, the memories of his life with Uncle Abdul that were trying to strangle him. His vision blurred. His eyes burned.

 

“Where have you been?” Uncle Abdul shouted, shaking him again. “Speak, ya Faisal!”

 

“Baghdad,” he choked out. “I flew to Baghdad.”

 

Uncle Abdul went pale, all color draining from his face. “No,” he breathed. “No, ya Faisal. How could you? Na uzo billah, ya Faisal…”

 

He couldn’t take it, not one single second more. His heart raced, and his palms were rivers of sweat. His body froze as his soul burned; death would be a relief from the torment. “If you’re going to kill me, just get it over with! Kill me and be done with it!”

 

Uncle Abdul froze.

 

Faisal breathed hard, panting. “Kill me!” he roared. “La illahah illalah, I am ready to be one with Allah! Just do it!”

 

Uncle Abdul stepped back, one shaking step, and then another. He shook his head, slowly, as if shaking off a nightmare. Wild confusion had replaced the madness, utter incomprehension spilling from every pore of his body. “Ya Faisal,” he breathed. “You think I want to kill you?”

 

“I saw the video you were watching. I saw it. The Imam, and what he said about me. It is permissible to kill me. It is better to be dead than to be me.” He watched his words hit his uncle, strike him like bullets.

 

Uncle Abdul staggered, all the air gusting out of him in one ragged breath. He grabbed Faisal’s hands, squeezing both until his bones shifted. “Ya Faisal,” he hissed. “That is my biggest fear! What that filth preaches! I have been up the entire night, calling every hospital and police station! Searching for your body!”

 

Faisal’s jaw dropped. Uncle Abdul grabbed him, held his head in both of his hands and pulled him forward, until their foreheads were pressed together. “Astaghfirullah, I had to know. I had to see it with my own eyes. What could happen to you. What those people want to do to my blood.” His voice dropped, turning to a growl. “In shaa Allah, ya Faisal. I will keep you safe. I will keep you safe.”

 

He grabbed his uncle, holding onto him in return. He couldn’t breathe; he couldn’t think. “Uncle…”

 

“How could you think I would ever harm you, ya Faisal? Ya Allah, ya faisal! Have I loved you so little that you think I could ever hurt you?”

 

“I didn’t know…” He closed his eyes, before the tears fell. “I didn’t know what to think. You pushed me away, Uncle.”

 

Astaghfirullah, ya Faisal. I am terrified.” Uncle Abdul’s voice dropped again, grinding over hi words. “I am terrified of what the world will do to you. To my Faisal.”

 

“You’ve kept me here because of this?”

 

“Yes! And bismillah, you will stay here! In this palace! Where it is safe!”

 

“Uncle, I have been safe. I have been careful—”

 

“Not safe enough! I found you, ya Faisal! If I found you, and him, then who else can? The religious police? They will put you on trial! You will go to jail for the rest of your life! Or, the dogs, the filth, the people who took your father, my brother, from us? Those terrorists will cut off your head!”

 

“Uncle—”

 

“I will not allow those people to take any more of my family!” Uncle Abdul’s voice shook, trembling. “They took my brother. They will not take you! They will not!”

 

“They won’t, uncle. I swear it. I swear. I am careful. I’ve always hidden… everything.”

 

“You must hide more, ya Faisal. You must hide everything.”

 

“I cannot live in hiding, uncle.”

 

“I will keep you safe. Bismillah, I will keep you safe. I swear it.”

 

Faisal stepped back. He held onto his uncle, grasping his shoulders, and looked into his gaze. Uncle Abdul stared back. His eyes were red and wet, hollow, and filled with agony. “Uncle, I must go back to Baghdad.”

 

Uncle Abdul’s lip curled, a dark sneer. “I know why you want to return.”

 

“Yes, you know one reason. But he is not all my reasons. Uncle, I have to do something with my life. Let me contribute to this family. I was good at what I did. I enjoyed it. Let me go back.”

 

“It is too dangerous. What if someone in Baghdad saw you yesterday? What if someone saw you and… that person… anytime?”

 

Astaghfirullah, uncle, I cannot live in a palace my whole life. I cannot be locked away. If that is your solution, then I would rather you kill me. I would rather die than cease to live any meaningful life.”

 

Uncle Abdul reared back, as if Faisal had slapped him. “There will never come a day when I will hurt you, ya Faisal. Ya Allah, how could you even consider the thought?”

 

“You are hurting me now, uncle. Locking me up.”

 

Turning away, Uncle Abdul paced the length of the parlor, one hand to his head. He gazed back at Faisal, misery flowing off him like sand pouring from a dune before the billowing wind. “Ya Faisal…”

 

Please, uncle. Let me go back.”

 

“What am I to do if I find a video of your death online? La hawla wala quwata illa billah, I am not strong enough to survive that, ya Faisal.”

 

“It will not happen. I promise. I swear it.”

 

Uncle Abdul turned away, burying his head in his hands. “You would resent me if I forbade you leave. Would you run away again? Would you shatter my heart with your disobedience?”

 

“You would shatter mine with your command to remain.” He took a breath, a deep inhale. “My heart is in Baghdad. Please. Let me go to it.”

 

Uncle Abdul shook his head, disgust and dejection rolled into one despairing groan.

 

“Please, uncle…”

 

Uncle Abdul collapsed, falling to a sofa as his knees buckled. He kept his face buried as his shoulders shook, sobs quietly rolling from him. Faisal crossed the parlor, dropping to his knees before his uncle.

 

Ya Faisal, my heart goes where you are.” Uncle Abdul reached for him, cradling his face. “You must take care, abnay.”

 

His uncle’s words flowed over him, warming his soul and filling his heart with light. My son, his uncle had said. Abnay; my son.

 

“I will. Wallah, I will.”

 

“And I will keep you safe, ya Faisal. Wallah, for all of my days.”

 

* * *

 

Adam waited in his apartment, pacing. He clenched his phone in his sweat-soaked fist, squeezing the phone until the plastic groaned.

 

I should never have let him go. I shouldn’t have let him go back. How could he go back to them?

 

His thoughts curdled, turning against each other. I’m so stupid. What could I have done? God, I could have saved him! What should I have done?

 

He stopped, rubbing his hands over his face and his head, gripping the back of his neck. Groaning, he kicked the wall, over and over, grunting with every slam of his foot against the thin, dusty drywall.

 

We’d just managed to say the words. God fucking damn it, we’d just managed to say it. His dream, his impossible dream – could he truly love Faisal? Could Faisal truly love him? He’d dreamed it countless nights in Baghdad, his thoughts consumed by Faisal.

 

And then, everything changed. Faisal wasn’t just a man, he was a prince. He wasn’t just a prince. He was a Saudi Royal Prince, and his uncle was the next in line for the throne.

 

But Faisal still wanted him. Wanted to love him. Had said it, even. Ana bahibak, ya hayati.

 

Even the worst fairy tales, the original grim ones, hadn’t ended so cruelly. To find perfection, and have it all undone.

 

Adam sank against the wall, sliding down until his ass hit the floor. He hung his head, letting it drop between his shoulders. How long should he wait for a call?

 

And then, his phone rang.

 

He jumped. His phone slid out of his sweat-slick palm, clattered to the floor. He grabbed it, pawing for the buttons. “Hello?”

 

“Ya hayati.”

 

He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t make any sound at all. His eyes squeezed shut and he thunked his head back, hitting the wall. Something burst from him, a gasp and a sob and a shriek, all rolled into one.

 

“Ya hayati, I am all right. We’ve talked. I am in no danger. Coming back was the right thing to do.”

 

Tears poured from his eyes, waterfalls that fell from his chin. He tried to wipe them away. “Are you sure?” he grunted. “Positive?”

 

Completely. And, something else.”

 

Adam waited, holding his breath.

 

“I am coming back to Baghdad. Officially.”

 

The tears came again, cascades of tears. “Maa shaa Allah,” he choked out. “Maa shaa Allah, Faisal.”

 

I will see you soon, ya hayati. Ya qalby.”

 

“Soon.” He couldn’t speak more than a single syllable. “Ana bahibak,” he choked out.

 

The line cut out. Adam dropped the phone. Pitching forward, he buried his face in his hands and let the sobs roll out of him, pour from his soul. His bones shook, his entire body wracked by the force of his wails. His heart ached, agonizing pain radiating from his chest.

 

This was all going to end in disaster. Terrible, terrible disaster. He could feel it in his bones, in the depth of his soul. There was too much against them. And, too much love between them. They would burn their worlds down, with this love. It would be safer, better, to walk away.

 

But he couldn’t. He just couldn’t.

 


Timestamp: Approximately two years prior to Enemies of the State, immediately following How (not) To Say Goodbye

Author’s Note: Poems used by Faisal and Adam are all of the great Persian poet Rumi.

 

First Impressions – Executive Office

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! This week, I’m completing Charlotte’s prompt request. Charlotte asked for the first impressions of her favorite characters. We take a look at The Executive Office, and Jack and Ethan, today… as well as a surprise character at Charlotte’s request! 🙂


 

 

Ethan

 

“Agent Reichenbach.” Director Peter Stahl looked him in the eye and shook his hand. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

 

“Thank you, sir.” Ethan smiled wide. He couldn’t not. Finally, after months, the Director of the Secret Service had issued the orders: he was now in charge of the White House Presidential Detail. Him. He was the first openly gay Secret Service agent to climb the ranks. To earn the top spot. After this, it was almost guaranteed he’d head over to Headquarters and serve on the senior staff.

 

One day, maybe even be in line to be the Deputy Director. Or, even the Director.

 

But first things first. He had a president to serve, for four years, or perhaps eight.

 

“As part of your promotion, I’m sending you out to take the lead on Senator Spiers’s campaign detail. He’s predicted to win, even this far out. The margins aren’t even close. It will be good for you to get a feel for his style before he moves into the West Wing.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“You have your senior team picked?”

 

“Yes sir. Agents Collard, Daniels, and Inada will be on my detail. Agent Welby will serve as my second in command.”

 

“Good choices. I expect you’ll run a tight ship. Secret Service Presidential Protections will be a brisk operation under your leadership.”

 

“Thank you, sir.” Again, Ethan smiled, so wide his cheeks started to ache.

 

“You’ll join Senator Spiers’s campaign Monday, July 11th. The Senator’s chief of staff will brief you, and then you’re in command.” Stahl shook his hand again. “Lead Agent Reichenbach.”

 

* * *

 

Monday, July 11th, Ethan wore his best suit. He picked out his best shoes and shined them to a mirror polish the night before at the hotel in Cincinnati, where Senator Spiers was stumping for the weekend. He got a haircut the Friday before he, Scott, and Daniels left DC. He put up with Scott’s good-natured ribbing about how he was trying to look too good, and was already there to work over the big boss.

 

“Let him win the election first,” Scott had snorted. “Then you can go all Rambo on his ass. These are his last months of freedom. Let him enjoy them, before the White House cage snaps shut.”

 

He took a dawn coffee briefing from Senator Spiers’s chief of staff, a thin, reticent man named Jeff Gottschalk. “The Senator knows you’re arriving today. He wants to meet you all.”

 

They waited in the campaign’s mobile command center, drinking coffee and trying to stay out of the way. Not easy, when they were each hulking blocks of muscle, strapped with guns on their hips and enough ammunition hidden on their bodies to take out a small army. Their trench coats, the Secret Service unofficial uniform, swept the floor.

 

“The Senator likes to keep us waiting?” Scott leaned into Ethan’s side, almost whispering, but not quite. “This should be good. Great start. Four years are going to go so fast.”

 

Daniels rolled his eyes. He went back to checking out some of the ladies working down the line.

 

Finally, the air in the room shifted. People moved faster, seemed to perk up. Heads turned toward the far door across the hotel’s conference room. The hotel’s plans flashed in Ethan’s mind. An inner staircase that Senator Spiers would be using to move around the hotel. He straightened. Elbowed Scott in the side.

 

The double doors opened, and Senator Jack Spiers strode in. He had two cell phones in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, and was listening to Gottschalk, walking beside him and talking quickly into his ear. Aides buzzed behind him, checking their phones, clutching newspapers under their arms, balancing tablets in front of them as they walked. Frenetic energy surrounded the Senator, all focused on him.

 

But in the center of it all, Senator Jack Spiers seemed as calm as ever.

 

Ethan appraised him like he would a military target, taking in everything from head to toe. Spiers’s blue suit, a shade lighter than was usual and customary in DC. It set off his skin, his blond hair, and made both seem brighter, more golden. His hands were quick, swiping through his phone and sipping his coffee. His eyes were bright and vibrant, peering intently at Gottschalk as he listened to his chief of staff, nodding along, softening at times.

 

This was a man in control. Confidently in control, content in his surroundings. He had power, but wielded it under a governed layer of calm surety.

 

No wonder he was ahead in the polls. Just watching him enter a room, Ethan was already willing to cast his vote. Of course, he never voted. It didn’t seem right, putting his finger on one side of the scale, when the president’s life was going to be in his hands. His job was to remain above politics, outside of politics. No matter the cost.

 

Scott whistled under his breath. “So that’s him.”

 

Ethan grunted.

 

Senator Spiers’s gaze swept the room, still listening to Gottschalk’s endless chatter. Had Gottschalk told him they were here? They needed to brief the Senator, explain the procedures for campaign security. The protections they were going to institute, starting that day, and when they traveled that afternoon to Detroit.

 

Spiers’s eyes landed on Ethan. Their gazes locked.

 

He’s got great eyes.

 

Spiers smiled, beaming. He reached for Gottschalk, politely extricating himself from his chief of staff’s briefing, and headed their way.

 

Spiers had been called the most attractive politician in memory. He had pretty boy good looks, the news said, and he was the kind of candidate Hollywood would drum up in a movie. Some accused him of being all style and no substance, lean on the parts of governance where it really mattered. Lean on experience, where it counted. Ethan hadn’t paid attention to the particulars. Politics wasn’t his job.

 

But, as Spiers walked toward them—

 

Wow. That smile…

 

He cleared his throat, straightened his shoulders. Squared himself, and clasped his hands behind his back.

 

“Gentleman.” Senator Spiers kept smiling the whole way across the room, kept smiling as he said hello. “Welcome to the campaign.”

 

“Sir.” Ethan held out his hand. “I’m Agent Reichenbach.” He introduced Scott, Daniels, and Inada.

 

Spiers took it, wrapping his free hand around Ethan’s as they shook. “I am incredibly grateful for your service. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for doing what you do.”

 

Clearing his throat, Ethan shook his head. “All part of the job, sir.”

 

“What can I do for you gentleman? What do you need from me, and from us?”

 

Scott, just faintly, snorted. Ethan could practically read his mind. Sir, we need your complete and total cooperation as we turn your life upside down, put you in a zoo, and throw away the key. Alright, into the straightjacket, there you go, be a good president…

 

“Sir, we have a briefing we’ll present to you later this morning. It will outline our needs. We will need dedicated office space, your schedules and access to your scheduling staff, and close coordination with your chief of staff to ensure that your protection is now our, and this campaign’s, number one priority.”

 

“I think winning the election is the number one priority for most everyone here. But, I’ll see to it that you get everything you need. If you’re not getting what you need, Agent Reichenbach, please address it with me personally.”

 

That tie really sets off his eyes. Have I ever seen a brighter blue?

 

“Thank you, sir. We’re very happy to be here working with you.”

 

He could feel Scott’s eyes bore into the back of his skull.

 

Spiers smiled, again, that beaming smile of his. Ethan couldn’t help it. He grinned back, just slightly. Oh, he’s definitely going to win the election. He’s a shoe-in. And no wonder.

 

“I look forward to getting to know you all. Please, make yourselves at home. This campaign is open to you in every way. We’ll talk more later today.” Spiers nodded once and moved off, heading back to his senior staff and Gottschalk, scrolling through his phone as he drank from an extra-large thermos of coffee.

 

“‘We’re very happy to be here’?” Scott leaned into his shoulder, snorting. “That’s not the line. ‘We’re here to do our job’ is what you’re supposed to say.”

 

“Whatever.” Ethan shook him off. “Let’s go get our gear and get set up. We’ve got five hours until we’re on the move to Detroit. Let’s get some work done.”

 

Danger, his mind whispered. Danger.

 

* * *

 

Jack

 

If someone had told him that the presidential campaign would be the single most exhausting endeavor he’d ever undertaken, he might have thought twice before deciding to make a run for the White House.

 

He was beyond tired. His exhaustion was exhausted. But, he never let it show. He just called it training. The presidency was going to be intense.

 

And, when he was tired, he knew his staff was even more so.

 

“This is what it will be like in the White House,” Pete Reyes, his campaign press manager, had said. Of course, he’d been grinning like a madman, bouncing a basketball on the hotel’s court at 2 AM as they both tried to exhaust their insomnia.

 

“Except, instead of speeches, it’s going to be world leaders and threats that will keep us up all night.”

 

“Think the White House has a basketball court?” Pete tried for a shot from the three-point line. He missed.

 

“They have a swimming pool. If you can’t find me, check there.”

 

“On the surface or at the bottom?” Pete winked.

 

Jack had chucked the ball at Pete, and they played for another forty-five minutes before turning in, finally physically exhausted enough to quiet their racing, raging minds.

 

There was always something to think about. Something to consider, or reconsider. Something to mull over, or obsess about. A speech to fine tune. Policy positions to examine. And, dreams to dream.

 

The White House. The presidency.

 

It was really going to happen.

 

He was finally starting to believe it. The poll numbers were there. The metrics were positive, and trending even more so. Hell, his Secret Service detachment had arrived that day.

 

“Four agents, Senator,” Jeff Gottschalk had said, briefing him in his hotel room over breakfast. “They sent the White House lead detail agent, Agent Reichenbach. They think you’re going to win this. They expect you to be in the White House.”

 

He’d needed a moment, after that.

 

The Secret Service agents were exactly what he’d expected, what he’d seen around DC so many, many times. Tall, hulking men, scowling at the world around them. Distrust wafted from them, a projection so strong they seemed to be holding signs that told the world to stay the fuck away from them. They were the linebackers of the political world, lions that lived in their protectee’s shadow.

 

He’d wanted to make them feel welcome. Wanted to make them feel at ease, especially if these were the men he was going to be seeing so much of for the next four years… in the White House. He’d tried, he really had.

 

But, Agent Reichenbach was as hard as they came. His handshake felt like granite. His jaw could have been chiseled from marble. If he smiled, it was a rare occurrence. Jack had teased a tiny grin out of him during their conversation, and that alone felt like he’d won the Texas primary, for a moment.

 

Was this his future? Being shielded and surrounded by a man who was built like Captain America, but had all the personality of the government distilled into a teaspoon? Concentrated lack of government humor?

 

No, there was more to Agent Reichenbach. That miniscule smile proved it.

 

And, what had happened later.

 

The campaign had been getting ready to break down and head out, make their way to Detroit. He’d needed another cup of coffee, stat, and he’d headed for the coffee bar the campaign kept in their command center at every stop.

 

Reichenbach was there, too, making his own cup of coffee.

 

“Senator.” Reichenbach nodded as he’d approached. He tried to step out of the way halfway through his pour.

 

“Please, finish. Don’t interrupt your coffee on my account.”

 

Reichenbach nodded. He took his coffee black, no cream, no sugar.

 

And then, he’d poured a fresh cup of coffee. “How do you take yours, Senator?”

 

“Oh, there’s no need for you to do—”

 

“It’s in my purview as a Secret Service agent, sir. I need to know everything, absolutely everything, about you. Your dark secrets. Your dirty laundry. And how you take your coffee.” He finished pouring and winked over his shoulder.

 

“When I was seven, I ran a stop sign on my bicycle.” Jack smiled. “I think I still have an unpaid parking ticket at my college. And, I take two sugars in my coffee.”

 

Reichenbach had chuckled softly as he stirred two sugar packets into the second cup. “I think the statute of limitations has passed for both. Though, I’ll have to check on the traffic violation on your bicycle. You are very young, Senator. You might still be on the hook for that crime.”

 

Was that the faintest hint of panic that flashed in Reichenbach’s eyes? For a moment, it had almost seemed like Reichenbach regretted what he’d said, the dry humor peeking out of the hard shell of the agent.

 

Jack had laughed as he accepted the coffee Reichenbach made for him. “If it helps reduce my sentence, I was very remorseful. I couldn’t even eat dinner that night.”

 

Reichenbach’s smile had reappeared. He’d looked down, as if he was trying to hide the evidence of his little grin. “Sir—”

 

“Is there coffee?” Gottschalk had appeared beside Jack, then, sighing and squeezing his eyes, more sleep deprived than even Jack was. “Please, God, say there’s still coffee.”

 

Reichenbach had stepped aside, freeing the coffee bar for Jeff. He’d started to leave.

 

“Agent Reichenbach?”

 

“Sir?”

 

“Maybe you can help settle something between Jeff and I.” What had he been thinking? Jack didn’t even know. But, he’d barreled on ahead anyway, the way he always did. “What do you think of my tie?” Jack smoothed his hand down his chest, over his sunny yellow tie, as Gottschalk groaned.

 

“God, for Christ’s sake, take that tie off. You look like a carnie.” Gottschalk had glowered at him, and then turned his ire toward Reichenbach. “Please, Agent Reichenbach, for all that’s good in the world. Tell him to take that hideous tie off.”

 

Jack had waited, grinning.

 

“I like the tie. It brings out your eyes, sir.”

 

Gottschalk almost inhaled his third swallow of coffee and hacked out a lung, coughing as he glared at Reichenbach.

 

Jack had beamed.

 

But, before Jack could say anything else, Reichenbach raised his cup of coffee, a kind of salute, and strode away, moving quickly. As if he wanted to escape.

 

Jack had turned his grin to Gottschalk, who rolled his eyes at him. “I don’t care what it does to your eyes, it’s still ugly.”

 

So what had that been? Hours later, and Jack was still mulling it over. Still trying to puzzle through the mystery that was his new Secret Service agent.

 

It wasn’t like he didn’t have a billion other things he could be thinking about. He was speaking in four different places in Detroit tomorrow and then flying down to Boulder, Colorado, after that. He had exactly no time to be ruminating on the odd behavior of Agent Reichenbach.

 

Jack flopped onto his side in the hotel’s king bed and dragged a pillow into his arms. Sometimes, he thought it would be nice to have someone there at night. Someone to hold on to. But he’d long ago decided he would remain single, remain a widower, for the rest of his days. There was just no one else in the world he wanted to get close to. No beautiful faces made him yearn. No laughing personality made his heart race. Pillows would be all he ever held close, ever again.

 

His thoughts drifted as he fell, finally, into his exhausted slumber. Agent Reichenbach, there’s more to you. I know there is.

 

Maybe one day, he’d get to find out.

 

* * *

 

Blake Becker

 

Oh God. Oh, for fuck’s sake. Oh, God, no. Anyone but him. Anyone, literally anyone.

 

Why the hell was Agent Ethan Reichenbach, the fucking boyfriend of the president of the United States, coming to the Des Moines, Iowa, field office?

 

Shepard, the agent in charge of their nine-man operation, looked like he’d lost a fight with a gorilla. He delivered the news in their weekly staff meeting with all the enthusiasm of a man condemned to die. “Agent Reichenbach will begin his assignment here in two weeks’ time.”

 

Stares and dropped jaws, all around the table.

 

“He’s still… in the Secret Service?”

 

“Shouldn’t he be fired? Totally fired?”

 

“Isn’t he, like, the worst-case example of what not to do as an agent?”

 

Shephard held up his hand. “Director Triplett has made the call. Reichenbach is coming here.”

 

“So, he and the president aren’t staying together, then? He’s just being quietly reassigned so everyone forgets about him?”

 

“God, I hope so.” Shephard scrubbed his hands over his face. “I hope he just keeps his head down and the press ignores him. If they’re not together, all the novelty of Reichenbach and where he stuck his dick will wear off. If we’re lucky, he’ll just fade away, like all the attention he’s been getting will, after they break up.”

 

* * *

 

Except, that wasn’t true at all.

 

Reichenbach and the president were staying together. In fact, they were keeping up a long-distance relationship. The president and his boyfriend… who now lived in Des Moines.

 

The media attention didn’t decrease. It increased, about a thousand-fold.

 

Shephard blew his top. He screamed on the phone, railed at the Director inside his office and behind closed doors. She talked him down, but it was a long three hours that they all spent waiting for the grenade to go off in Shephard’s office.

 

And then, the two weeks were up, and Reichenbach’s first day arrived.

 

Becker and the others all huddled outside of the breakroom, waiting for their first glimpse of the man. What did a man who had seduced the president of the United States look like? Did he exude some kind of raw animal magnetism? Was he a maverick? Did he think the rules didn’t apply to him anymore? Was he going to be a raging, apocalyptic asshole?

 

The door to their office clicked open. Someone walked in.

 

Everyone’s heads turned. Stared.

 

Ethan Reichenbach, boyfriend to the president, walked into the Des Moines office. His shoulders were hunched, and he looked left and right as if trying to find someone. He seemed lost, and even though he was a large man, well-built, and obviously stronger than a bull, he seemed small. Diminutive, in a way. As if he was trying not to take up any space, draw any attention to himself.

 

Finally, he saw everyone waiting outside the breakroom, clustered in a tight knot just to the right of Shephard’s office.

 

Becker stared. Reichenbach stared back.

 

It wasn’t an arrogant stare, though. The haughtiness, the rancid smugness, the air of superiority they all expected was missing. Reichenbach looked like a man who had come back from war. Like a man who had learned all his lessons the hard way. Like a man who had left something precious, something integral to himself, behind. Like a man that wanted to be anywhere but there.

 

No, not anywhere.

 

He wanted to be back in DC. Becker could see it, plain as day.

 

“Reichenbach!” Shephard yanked open his office door. “In here. I’ll brief you.” Shephard scowled at Becker and the rest of the agents. “Don’t you have cases to run?”

 

Becker and the others scattered, vanishing back into their cubicles. He stopped, though, outside of his. The cubicle next to him was empty. Was Reichenbach going to be working there? He was the only agent without a partner. He was the odd man out. Was he going to get Reichenbach as a partner? Was that even allowed? Was Reichenbach, really, even an agent anymore?

 

What could he learn from Reichenbach, though? The thought, the idea, that there was something he might be able to pull from Reichenbach, was tantalizing. What stories he might have. Of course, not the stories of seducing the president, or of being the worst agent in the history of the Secret Service. But, before that. He’d been the lead detail agent. He had to have been hot shit at one time. He had to know thing, real things.

 

Becker looked back toward Shephard’s office. The door was closed and the blinds were drawn. Who knew what was going on inside.

 

Once, Reichenbach had to have been something pretty special.

 

Now, he was just a man with a broken heart, forced into exile, and forced to wear his bad decisions, public humiliation, and his personal shame for everyone – literally everyone – to see, played out on the national and international media, day in and day out.

 

Becker almost felt sorry for him.


Timestamp: Before Enemies of the State, when Jack & Ethan first meet on the presidential campaign (referenced in Interlude); Blake Becker’s first impressions of Ethan at the end of Enemies of the State.

 

First Impressions – Hush

 

So sorry for the day delay on Bauer’s Bytes! I have been under the weather, and yesterday, I just couldn’t beat back this flu enough to get the Bytes up. So sorry!

This week, I tackled one of Charlotte’s prompts. Charlotte wanted to know what the first impressions of some of her favorite characters were upon meeting. This week, Mike and Tom from Hush. Next week, characters from the Executive Office series! 🙂 Thanks for a great prompt, Charlotte!


 

 

Mike

 

“Here’s another one.” Winters dropped a thick binder on Mike’s desk. It was bigger than the other binders Winters had dropped off over the years, much bigger. “Tom Brewer. Former AUSA. The Senate confirmed him as the newest DC federal judge. I don’t think you ever crossed his path when he was AUSA. Here’s his background investigation.”

 

Mike pulled Tom Brewer’s binder across the desk. It felt like a brick. “Why is his background so huge? Does he have a colorful past?”

 

A colorful past. A polite euphemism for a fucked-up history, a professional past littered with complaints, sexual harassment issues, covered-up affairs, and more. DUIs that had been wiped by the DC police. Former staffers that had quietly been moved across the country.

 

“Exactly the opposite. He’s squeaky clean. Too clean. Made people nervous.”

 

Mike flipped open the binder, flicking through pages and pages of cleared background forms, endless “no” answers to all the bad questions, explanation sheets that said “not applicable” over and over again. No experimentation with drugs. No run ins with the law. No DUIs. No affairs. No tricky finances. No secret babies. No proverbial dead bodies. “Huh. We don’t see this often.”

 

“Not from a male judge. It’s the women who are perfect.”

 

“Hopefully he’s as easy to manage as this was.” Mike shut Tom’s binder with a quick snap.

 

Winters snorted. “That was a shitshow to assemble, Lucciano. No one believes that’s all there is to Judge Brewer. You might be in for a surprise with this one. Keep your eyes open.”

 

“Will do.” Mike filed Tom’s binder on the shelf over his file cabinet. He turned back to his computer, to the recent threat briefing, and pushed Judge Tom Brewer from his mind.

 

* * *

 

“Your Honor?” Mike waited a polite ten and a half minutes after Tom Brewer, newest federal judge to the DC bench, began his first day. He stood in the doorway to Tom’s chambers, waiting.

 

Tom was circling his tiny office, running one hand over the polished Cherrywood desk. His eyes bounced over the empty bookcases behind the desk, the wood paneled walls, the bare floor. Was he mentally decorating? Planning to put his mark on the office? Preparing to order brand new everything? How difficult was Judge Tom Brewer going to be? Mike could foretell the entire future in the next minute.

 

Tom turned to Mike, smiling ear to ear. “Hi, sorry, I didn’t see you there. Please, come in.” He beckoned Mike into his office and waved him to one of the leather club chairs in front of the bare cherrywood desk. “This is amazing. Just amazing.” Tom leaned one hip against his desk and gazed at his office again.

 

He wasn’t redecorating. He was admiring. Taking in the tiny walls and the wood paneling with all of its nail holes, the scuffed floorboards, the cherrywood desk with the worn spots on the corners. Tom looked at his new office like he’d walked into a surprise party.

 

Mike almost didn’t want to interrupt Tom Brewer’s boyish adoration of his new space. “Your Honor, welcome to the DC federal bench.” 

 

Tom’s full-watt smile turned to Mike. He chuckled, almost giddy-like, under his breath. “I don’t think I’ll ever be used to this.”

 

Damn it, this was cute. Mike had never dealt with a judge who was adorable before. They were arrogant, uppity, entitled, or far, far too busy for the mere mortals around them. They never took the time to indulge in the moment, grin with excitement over their new office, or giggle, embarrassed and thrilled at the same time.

 

This was exactly the kind of guy that would have a completely boring background investigation. Maybe Tom Brewer had been too busy aw-shucksing his way through life to get into trouble.

 

Thought, it would have been easy for him to fall into a love affair. He probably had to fend off attractions and invites for dates from all the ladies. Tom Brewer was attractive, in that career-DC way. A politician’s patrician face, dark hair combed to the side, a body made for a slender suit. He had kind eyes, though, and that stood out. In the ocean of DC politics, the eyes said it all about the person. Hard eyes, cold eyed, lying eyes, dead eyes. They were a dime a dozen. But, kind eyes? Those were special.

 

He smiled back at Tom. So far, awesome. Judge Tom Brewer seemed like a decent guy. This should be an easy assignment, at least as far as personality went. There would be hard cases, and there would be threats – there always was, with everyone – but if Tom Brewer was as awesome professionally as he was personally, working with him would be a breeze.

 

“Your Honor, I am Inspector Mike Lucciano, Deputy US Marshal, and I am in charge of your security here at the courthouse. Are you ready for your first security briefing?”

 

* * *

 

Tom

 

“Are you ready for your first security briefing?”

 

Jesus, he was going to be spending more time with this man? Inspector Mike Lucciano, Deputy US Marshal?

 

His mouth was dry. His tongue was heavy. He glanced back to his bare bookshelves, trying to recapture the awe he’d felt striding into his very own judge’s chambers. Him, a judge! Unbelievable. Inconceivable. His heart had beat too fast, a pitter patter that left him breathless as he circled the desk.

 

And then a man had appeared at his doorway.

 

Tall. Almost six feet. Muscular. He filled out his suit in all the right ways. Thick shoulders. Trim hips.

 

Blue eyes, the color of a perfect September sky. Golden blond hair, combed into a swept and carefree pompadour, like waves of sand tumbling toward an ocean. Dimples in his cheeks when he smiled.

 

His suit was too stylish for DC. On the slender, form-fitting side, like the Europeans liked it, and a lighter blue than what crammed the halls of bureaucracy in the federal government. The fabric clung close to his legs, almost curving around the shape of his muscles.

 

His heart pitter-pattered for a whole different reason.

 

Damn it, stop. He’d put this away, long, long ago. He’d stopped seeing men who could take his breath away, had stopped looking for men who burned the blood in his veins. He’d built a safe world at the United States Attorney’s office, tunnel-visioned on his professional life. There was no one who made his heart go crazy, made his palms sweat until he thought beads would drip from his fingertips.

 

Tom folded his arms, clenching his sweaty palms in the bunched fabric at his elbows.

 

New job. New role. New people in his life. He’d done this before, built up his walls and shored up his barricades. He would do so again. Twenty-four years he’d kept his own secret, and look at the life he’d managed to build. If that wasn’t proof that he’d done the right thing, made the right choice, then he didn’t know what was.

 

He turned back to Mike, his polite smile pasted on his face. “Yes, Deputy Marshal— Inspector—Uh…”

 

“Inspector is the correct title, Your Honor. But, please. You’re more than welcome to call me Mike.”

 

There was that smile again. Tom’s bones turned to jelly, and a thousand fire ants seemed to be racing up the insides of his skin. He nodded, tried to smile, and scooted the chair beside the desk a little farther away from Mike. Tried to hide it as he pretended to turn the chair more to face him. Was this better or worse? He wasn’t next to Mike, but now he was looking right at him, looking right at a man that could have stepped out of his fantasies, out of his deepest, deepest dreams.

 

Maybe Mike would be an asshole. That would be perfect, actually. If Mike was an asshole, then he’d be cured of his fascination, lickety split.

 

God, he wanted to lick Mike’s chest—

 

Jesus. Stop. Stop.

 

Mike passed over a binder with another heart-melting smile. The front read: Security Procedures for Judges.

 

“This is your security manual. Please, Your Honor, take the time to read it. I know it’s dry, but the procedures in here are important. My job is to keep you and your courtroom safe and secure at all times. Mostly, this will be behind the scenes for you. I will be monitoring all threats made against the bench, and if any come specifically against you. I’ll investigate any and all threats made to ensure your complete safety. Also, for any high-risk trial that you preside over, I will be creating a security plan for both your protection and for the courtroom during the trial.”

 

“I used to see Villegas, and another guy before him, when I was an AUSA.”

 

Mike nodded. “Villegas is the other Inspector here. Before him, it was Edwards. We all have slightly different styles to our protections. I’m a little more hands-on than Villegas. I like to be thorough. Better safe than sorry.”

 

Shit.

 

“But, don’t worry, Your Honor. Your first year or two, you shouldn’t get very many high-risk trials. The other judges are figuring out which cases to offload to you to build your book. Unfortunately, you might be stuck with the boring ones.” Mike winked. “Which means you definitely won’t be seeing me at all.”

 

Shit, shit.

 

Tom chuckled, almost breathless. Mike wasn’t an asshole. He was funny, and kind, and seemed oh-so-competent. Tom had always had a weak spot for people who were deliciously smart. And who made him laugh.

 

If he got a load of boring cases, then he wouldn’t be seeing Mike, though.

 

That was good. He could build his walls higher, take time to re-center himself. Dig a deeper ditch around his heart and soul’s hideout.

 

Mike spoke some more, rehashing courthouse security procedures, which he already knew, and going over the special judges-only information he needed to know now. He listened, nodded along, and watched Mike’s Adam’s apple work up and down, watched the vein on the side of his neck slowly pulse.

 

“If you have any questions, Your Honor, my office is right down the hall. I’m here if you need anything. Please, read your manual. If you need something to put you to sleep, that’s the thing.” Mike grinned.

 

“I will read it. I promise.” Tom stood and held out his hand. It only trembled slightly.

 

Mike didn’t seem to notice. He clasped Tom in a firm handshake, pumped once, and then started for the door.

 

The zing from Mike’s touch went from the bottom of Tom’s feet to the tips of his hair. Handshakes were the only touches he allowed himself with another man. The only male contact he ever received. Fingers on the back of his hand, a warm palm resting in his own. He closed his eyes, exhaling softly. Mike’s touch, as brief as it had been, was like lightning.

 

“Your Honor?”

 

His eyes snapped open. Mike was waiting in the doorway, his perfect body cased in light from the hall. His golden hair gleamed, and his blue eyes sparkled, laughter and gentleness mixing in their glow.

 

“Welcome, again, to the DC federal bench. Congratulations. I think you’re going to do great here.” Mike smiled again and disappeared down the hallway.

 

Shit.

 

Tom turned away from the door and gripped the edge of his desk. He closed his eyes and breathed, in and out, slowly.

 

In his mind, he imagined himself putting bricks up, stacking them higher, building his wall taller, stronger. Building his wall against the man with the perfect smile and beautiful eyes.

 

Building his wall against Mike.

 


Timestamp: One year prior to Hush, when Mike and Tom first meet.

 

Through the Lens – White House Photographer in Enemies of the State

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

I moved last week and took a hiatus from Bauer’s Bytes. This week, Randi sent in a prompt: “I thought of the Christmas present that Jack gave to Ethan. Those pictures that were taken by the White House Press Photographer, I was wondering if you could give us a scene of when he was taking those candid shots of Jack and Ethan since they did become his favorite subject. If the photographer ever suspected anything was more than what they were playing off for every one else.” What a great prompt!

Enjoy!


 

The job, on the surface, is simple. No different than any other photography job.

 

Capture the presence. Capture the personality. Capture the power, the magnitude of the moment. The history.

 

Most subjects, though, aren’t the President of the United States.

 

Photographing President Jack Spiers is a thrill. He’s vibrant, vivacious, and fun. Much more fun than the last few guys in the Oval Office. He’s got a sparkle, a flair for life. Even in meetings, you can feel his presence, the depth of his consideration behind those blue eyes. He might be just the pretty-boy candidate who became a pretty-boy president, but Spiers, so far, has taken over the Oval Office in a way that few presidents manage to do. Empty-headed, his detractors claimed, he is proving he is not.

 

He connects with people, too. He listens, more than any other president. He was criticized on the campaign for not having the experience for the job. He was just a Senator, and a junior senator at that. He was too young. He was just a pretty face. But I’ve seen him turn his entire focus on another and truly listen to what they have to say. Size up the person in front of him, take in their competence, their experience and expertise, their character, and even their heart, in a matter of seconds. He seems to be able to put his finger son the pulse of another person’s soul in moments, and those who are the best choices to guide him, help him, assist him in all the ways big and small that he needs are the ones who help him lead the nation.

 

His Cabinet adores him. The staff of the West Wing knows he listens to them. They know he wants their expertise, the best of the best that they can provide. They know he relies on each of them to be extraordinary, so that he can bring the combined force of their efforts to better the world. He’s created something special in this White House, without the infighting, the sniping, the stress fractures, and the panic that seized other administrations.  

 

And then there’s Reichenbach.

 

Secret Service detail lead, Special Agent Reichenbach. A cool cucumber if I’ve ever met one. The Iceman, a stone-cold monolith on the campaign and in the White House. If you saw a picture of any of the last few presidents, and you saw a tall, dark scowl somewhere in the frame, that would be Reichenbach. He can cut a man down with his frigid eyes, scatter crowds with his intimidating power. I’ve seen reporters flee his presence, leave a wide berth around the bubble of his ferocity.

 

If we were a thousand years in the past, he’d be the axe-wielding barbarian hulking behind the prince’s shoulder, beheading anyone who got too close to his ward without a second thought. There would be legends about him in the kingdom, something about a witch stealing his heart, or that he was actually a monster, or a boulder spelled to life, and that there was nothing inside him except a need to protect and a dark power that lived in his soul and shielded the throne.

 

He’s been a reliable fixture in the West Wing, like an armchair or a clock. There’s the George Washington oil painting above the fireplace, and beside that, the Reichenbach with his Tuesday scowl. All is normal in the world.

 

But now my camera is capturing fantastical images.

 

I feel like a man who has photographed aliens. A unicorn. Spotted the Yeti in the wilds. I’ve seen Reichenbach smile. Laugh, even. And I’ve captured it on film, saved for all time.

 

There’s something about President Spiers, we all knew. Something about the man that rocketed him from the Senate to the presidency. He worked his magic in the Senate, on his campaign, and now on the American people.

 

And, Reichenbach seems to have fallen under his spell.

 

Shared smiles in the hallways. Reichenbach quietly laughing with President Spiers as they move together through the West Wing. Shared conversations over cups of coffee, jokes shared back and forth. Reichenbach seems to have slotted into Spiers’s life as more than just a barbarian guard, a scowling Secret Service agent. He seems to be, almost, a kind of friend.

 

Reichenbach glows, every part and piece of him coming to life under the brilliance of President Spiers’s unfiltered attention. What must it be like to be the recipient of all of Spiers’s focus, his joy, his happiness? Reichenbach has blossomed, the hard shell cracking, and the man within appearing like spring bursting through a winter’s long night. The dark witch’s spell has broken; the young prince has saved the barbarian.

 

Is it just friendship, though?

 

I catch more than I try to, through my lens.

 

Reichenbach’s hand ghosting over the small of Spiers’s back as they slip down the West Wing hallway.

 

The both of them standing just a little too close, shoulders and arms brushing as they stand side by side.

 

The look in Reichenbach’s eyes when he gazes at President Spiers. Something that mixes adoration with pride, longing with conviction. More than just an agent protecting his man. Something deeper. Something fundamental. Something that lives in the center of Reichenbach, as a man.

 

The smiles President Spiers gives to Reichenbach, the smiles he gives to no one else. Smiles that are reserved for Reichenbach alone.

 

Reichenbach is openly gay. He’s not loud, but he’s proud, and he’s never hidden his orientation. His ascension through the ranks was watched with joy by gay rights advocates, and his promotion to the top spot was met with cheers from all. He’d earned the position and the honors, twelve years of perfect, dedicated service. He’s at the pinnacle of his career.

 

He’s never slipped. Not once. He’s never been tarnished by scandals that have hit the Secret Service. Never been a part of the wild sections of the agency. He’s always been a straight shooter, a reliable, steadfast, perfect professional.

 

But is President Spiers his kryptonite? Has the Iceman’s heart started to melt?

 

Has he fallen for his president?

 

Impossible. The thought is impossible. Reichenbach would never compromise his professionalism like that. And, President Spiers isn’t gay. He isn’t interested in men. There’s no possibility, no probability, no way at all that these two men would be together in any romantic way. A president and his Secret Service agent? Preposterous.

 

My camera turns to them over and over again. I can’t get enough of the electricity crackling between them, the raw power in their presence. The way their eyes meet and hold, and how so much happens between their gazes. Their smiles, and the way Reichenbach’s quiet joy could power Air Force One.

 

I tell myself there’s nothing going on. That Reichenbach would never violate his oath, his professionalism. That I’m not party, in some small way, to the biggest secret in the world.

 

But I look at these photos, the light in their eyes, and I can’t deny what I’m seeing any longer.

 

The barbarian has fallen in love with his prince.

 

Special Agent Reichenbach is in love with President Spiers.

 

And President Spiers is looking back at Reichenbach like he might be a little bit in love, too.


Timestamp: Enemies of the State, POV of the White House photographer.