A HUGE thank you to everyone who submitted prompt ideas and suggestions for more weekly stories! I will absolutely go through them all and write them for you. They were all fantastic! (A few were so fantastic that you touched on future plots and scenes from the novels! Great job!)
This week, I listened to the awesomely loud shouts for more Sergey & Sasha. (They are very special to me.) We’ll start off slow with a nice missing scene(s) excerpt. What happened with Sasha and Sergey between when they met in the recovery room and when they came to the US for Jack’s State Dinner? How did Sasha become Sergey’s right hand? How did he fit into the Kremlin, and so effortlessly into Sergey’s life?
This is, I believe the first missing scene I’ve written from Enemy of My Enemy. 🙂
Slowly, Sasha placed one foot in front of the other, taking careful steps across the cold tiled floor of his hospital room. One hand rested over the healing stitches above his belly button. The other made a loose fist, just barely trembling at his side. The hem of his baggy hospital scrub pants brushed across the floor, and his white undershirt clung to his sweat-damp skin. Spring sunbeams faded across the square tiles, fingers of cold light that poked at his bare toes.
Finally, he reached the far end of his recovery room. Resting one hand against the white wall, he exhaled, and then turned, readying himself to begin his trek again.
A figure slouching in the doorway made him jerk back, and he smothered a curse on his lips as fast as it rose. He straightened and squared his shoulders. Dropped his hand from beneath his shirt, pressing over his belly. “Mr. President.”
President Puchkov smiled slowly. “How goes the march?” He flicked a finger back and forth across the room, following Sasha’s pacing.
“Slow,” Sasha grumbled.
“The doctor tells me you have been at this all day. You have likely marched from Moscow to St. Petersburg and back.”
Sasha turned his head and glared at the blank wall. He said nothing.
“It has only been three days.” Puchkov padded into the room and dropped his bunched-up suit jacket on the end of Sasha’s bed. “Give yourself some time.”
Sasha glared at Puchkov as he stepped off the wall, petulantly placing one foot in front of the other as began his trek again. The bruised and swollen skin over one eye pulled with his scowl and started to throb.
It was Puchkov’s turn to sigh and say nothing. He shook his head, but a small smile played over his lips. Crossing his arms, he watched Sasha’s careful footfalls until he reached the opposite wall.
Sasha leaned back, resting, his hand rising over his stitches once again.
“We have made some inquiries,” Puchkov began. He cleared his throat and looked down, pursing his lips. “At Andreapol Air Base.”
Tension thrummed through Sasha’s body, stiffening his muscles and hardening his gut. His free hand fisted again, shaking, and his teeth ground against each other as his jaw clenched.
“The base commander insists that you have abandoned your post. That your squadmates saw you leave the base and not return.”
A bitter curse burst from his lips before he could stop it. “That is not true! I went back! I was there early for my duty! My car is there,” Sasha growled. “It is outside my hangar!”
“It is not at the base,” Puchkov gently corrected.
Sasha’s head whipped away. He blinked fast as he stared into the corner.
“My good friend is head of the FSB. Ilya Ivchenko. Do you know him?”
“I recognize the name.”
“I asked Ilya to look into this situation as a personal favor to me.”
“The FSB—“ Shocked, Sasha’s head spun back around. He stared at his president, his jaw dropping open. If the FSB were involved, there was no telling what way an investigation would go. What if they sided with his old commander? Or with his squadmates who had tried to kill him? What if the FSB believed he had gone rogue? Would he be punished, too, for his choked and sobbing admission to President Puchkov? Damn it, he’d been so weak! But, after that, after falling apart in Puchkov’s arms and not being turned away in disgust, he’d thought Puchkov was a good man, a man he could believe in, perhaps even trust. Would he turn him over to the FSB? Sasha’s stomach ached, fire burning in his belly.
“The FSB is very different now than when my predecessor was in power,” Puchkov interrupted. “I trust Ilya with my life, and with things even greater and larger than that. I knew he would get to the truth of this matter, and quickly. There is no one that I have trusted more.”
Sasha swallowed. He’d started to tremble sometime, his body shaking uncontrollably, and he couldn’t stop.
“Ilya sent his best men to turn this situation upside down.” Puchkov hesitated, and a frail, apologetic smile tugged at the corners of his thin lips. “They found your car dumped in a snowbank seventy kilometers away from the base. It looked as though a drunk driver had crashed it and then stumbled off into the snow.”
“That is not what happened!” He tried to take a step forward, toward Puchkov, but his trembles robbed him of his balance and his strength, and he stumbled back, falling against the wall as he cursed again. Sasha’s eyes slid closed, and he breathed hard through his split and swollen lip.
“I know, Sasha. I believe you.” Puchkov’s voice, low and almost growling, rumbled across the room. “We both believe you.”
Sasha met Puchkov’s gaze. Fractional hope, almost choked to death with his crushing fear, punched him in the gut.
Sighing, Puchkov sat at the foot of Sasha’s unmade and rumpled hospital bed. “But I do not know what to do now. The FSB of old would make this problem disappear. They would make the base commander, and all who attacked you, vanish. It would be a lesson to anyone who thinks they can do the same and get away with it. We would make an example out of them. All of them.”
Sasha’s breath faltered.
“But…” Puchkov shook his head, exhaling hard. “That is not the man that I am. That is not the country I want to live in.” His eyes slipped closed, and then opened and fixed on Sasha. “So it falls to you. Do you wish to press charges? Do we take this to the courts? Let the legal system work this out?” Puchkov shrugged. “Or try to work this out?”
His teeth brushed over the scab crusting his lower lip. Two days ago, he’d made the mistake of chewing on his still-healing lip, and blood had gushed from the reopened wound, down his front and into his mouth. Like a switch had flipped, he’d been transported back to the moment at Andreapol, his mind reliving the memories of the hockey sticks and the kicks slamming into him over and over again.
The men who had attacked him had been his friends. Men he’d trained with. Had flown with. Had visited in their homes. He’d honestly thought they had been friends. One day, he’d dreamed, he might be able to admit to what he was with them. If he could ever admit it to himself. Say the word out loud to his own reflection in the mirror.
How had they found out what he was? How had they discovered his deepest secret?
Did he want to see any of them again? Reopen the memories, like gnawing off his scab, and put his trust in the fitful Russian criminal justice system? What were the odds that one of his former squadmates—or the base commander, even—had connections with the Bratva, the mafia known as the Brotherhood? Could they pay off the investigators, or the judges? Would the entire thing be twisted and contorted until it was him rotting in a jail cell, or taken out into the wilderness again and left to die?
He’d seen it happen before.
President Puchkov kept silent, watching him think.
When would Puchkov’s support run out? When would Sasha be on his own again? He had to plan for that. As considerate and compassionate as Puchkov had been, that all had to have an end date. How could he pick up the pieces? How could he go forward with his life, in the wake of its total destruction? What was the right choice?
“No charges,” he mumbled, shaking his head. “No. Not that.”
“I do not want to,” he snapped, cutting Puchkov off. “I just want to live. Quietly. I do not want to be a martyr, or a figurehead, or a puppet. Or a cause. I won’t look over my shoulder every day.”
Finally, Puchkov nodded. “I understand,” he sighed, and then gave a tiny quirk of a smile. “I am doing quite a bit of over the shoulder looking myself these days.”
Sasha frowned. He took a breath, held it, and then took another. His shudders were ebbing, finally slowing, and he pushed himself off the wall, taking careful steps until he stood in front of Puchkov, almost swaying. “The media says there have been threats against your life.”
Puchkov tried to grin up at him. “Quite a few, in fact.” He shrugged. “I expected as much. I am surprised I am still alive even now, to be truthful. To have lived to accomplish this, this purge of corruption. And, to still be alive three days later.” He grinned again, but it was tinged with weariness.
“You cannot die.” Sasha’s words were more grunted than spoken, soft and low.
“I am doing my best,” Puchkov said softly. His smile grew warmer, and then he slapped his knee and rose. He held out one arm, as he were offering it for Sasha to loop his own through. “Now, is this marching of yours strong enough to accompany me to dinner, one floor above, or should I have something brought here for us?”
Sasha gaped, blinking, as Puchkov took Sasha’s hand and looped it through his arm.
* * *
The bruises had faded and the scabs had fallen off, and his stitches didn’t sting anymore. The ache was mostly gone in his belly, and he could manage through most of the day before becoming exhausted. He still needed an IV every night of fluids and antibiotics, and he was still living out of the sterile recovery room. Each night, Dr. Voronov asked him about his day while he slid the IV needle into his arm, and Sasha regaled him with his very boring stories of pacing the halls of the Kremlin, and, once, trying to jog in the inner courtyard.
And, every night, President Puchkov came to his room to visit. He sat with Sasha through the IV, and then stayed after, bringing dinner or asking Sasha up to his presidential apartments to dine informally with him. Upstairs, they ate at Puchkov’s long state dining table, amid stacks of reports and binders stuffed overfull of papers and briefings, and maps unfurled and held down at the corners with small marble statues and crystal candleholders. It was nothing like what he expected the president—the office, the institution, and the legacy—to be. But it was exactly what Puchkov was like, as he was slowly coming to understand.
He’d started to look forward to the visits. Danger, his mind shouted. The president is not your friend. You have no friends. No anymore.
But he still welcomed Puchkov with a smile, and laughed at his dry sarcasm, and hung on his every word when Puchkov spoke about the changes rocking their country. Russian oligarchs that hadn’t been swept up in the corruption purge were holding court in Europe, wailing about Puchkov and his government from Paris to London. Workers who found themselves unemployed overnight and their workplaces seized by the government had hit the street, protesting everything, it seemed. The closure of their workplace. The corruption. Their money running out, and a creeping sense of terror and dread that their pain was only the beginning. Food rationing had already begun in St Petersburg. Riots had erupted in Volgograd.
“I am heading to the US in ten days,” Puchkov said one night, stretching out his long limbs and crossing his arms behind his head as he sat in the single bedside chair, the recovery room’s only furnishing. They were eating take out Chinese and sharing cartons back and forth. Puchkov had finished, and given the rest to Sasha to polish off.
Sasha hesitated, his chopsticks holding a piece of crispy beef over the paper carton.
“A state visit. Jack’s first state dinner, in fact. And then we will announce the American investment plan. It is…” Puchkov sighed, and his hands scrubbed over his face. “My advisors are complaining. But this is what the people need. It will get them back on their feet and working again faster than anything else. We need to make sure our people are taken care of.”
“Traveling right now. That is too big a risk, no?” Sasha dropped his chopsticks into the carton and set it aside. The IV line tugged, but he ignored it.
Puchkov hadn’t left the Kremlin once since the corruption purge. He was kept insulated, and his security services were scrambling to keep on top of every threat. Even their Chinese food—ostensibly ordered for a low-level businessman not even in the Kremlin—had been tested for poison before they could eat.
“Now you sound like Ilya.” Puchkov smiled ruefully. “But it has to happen. For now, I will put my trust in the people closest to me.”
Sasha stayed silent.
“You are one of those people, you know.” Leaning forward, Puchkov held Sasha’s gaze. His eyes twinkled.
Sasha scoffed. He jerked his chin toward their takeout carton and waved one hand around the recovery room. “I am one of those people so close to you because you cannot get rid of me. I am stuck here. I have nowhere to go.” His lips clamped shut after he spoke. Reminding Puchkov of his uselessness would only get him kicked out faster. And, if he was honest with himself… Sasha was just beginning to allow himself to enjoy being around there. Being around President Puchkov.
Puchkov frowned. “Would you choose to stay?”
Sasha glared at the IV in his arm, and then at the thin hospital sheet bunched beneath his knees. He couldn’t look at Puchkov.
“What if,” Puchkov finally asked, his voice soft. “There was a position here for you?”
He frowned, and his heart hammered out a pounding beat in his chest, a heavy rhythm that ached. What would Puchkov want him for? A symbol? As a project? A cause? Exactly what he never wanted to be?
“Ilya is stretched too thin. He’s running ragged with his people stretched across the country and around the world. He needs help.”
Sasha’s jaw dropped. “Ilya Ivchenko? The head of the FSB?”
“My very good friend Ilya.” Puchkov leaned forward, braced his elbows on his knees, and rubbed his hands together. “I have told him I want to appoint a presidential aide dedicated to him and me. Another person to help us try and make sense of the world. If that is even possible.”
“What purpose could I have in all of this?” If Puchkov was going where Sasha thought he was, Puchkov was a crazy man. He couldn’t possibly want Sasha for that. Puchkov and Ilya had been comrades for their entire life. Sasha had known him for a week. It would be an honor to serve at that level, to support Puchkov in the best way he could, but the thought was an impossible one.
“I think you would be a great man for that position,” Puchkov said softly. “And I would like you to stay. To choose to stay,” he corrected. “Everything I know about you—from your records, from spending time with you, from…” Puchkov swallowed, and he vaguely waved his hand through the air, as if he was referencing things he couldn’t say. “Everything I have learned about you makes me confident that you are the right person for this.” He smiled again, almost sweetly, and then ruined it with a wicked wink. “I know this,” he said, throwing his arms wide. “Because I am FSB, too. Reading people, and knowing them, is what I do.”
Sasha smiled back, though it was thin, and his lips pressed together hard.
“So.” Puchkov leaned forward again. “Will you stay? Will you accept?”
From Andreapol to the Kremlin. From the bloody fists of his former friends to the enigma that was President Puchkov. And Puchkov’s compassion. His care. The seemingly all-encompassing way he’d thrown himself into a friendship with Sasha. At first, Sasha had thought it was all due to some vague sense of duty. After all, President Puchkov had made supporting gay rights a pillar of his office, especially after the American president and he had become such firm allies. But…
For all of Puchkov’s friendly overtures and his gregariousness, some part of Sasha had still thought it was all an act. That Puchkov, somewhere inside, was like all powerful men who believed people were there to be used. He hadn’t quite figured out how he was useful to Puchkov, unless it was as some kind of budding charity chase. Or a publicity campaign. He’d been shielding himself for both possibilities.
But Puchkov had listened when he said he didn’t want to press charges against his attackers, and he’d accepted Sasha’s request for privacy. There was nothing about him or his attack in the papers, even though it could have bolstered Puchkov’s campaign for equal rights, and his new center for LGBT protections in Moscow.
But Puchkov spoke like he wanted Sasha for something more than just a political play. Or as a pawn to be moved around and then exchanged for a better move down the line. Unbelievably, Puchkov seemed to actually want him.
And Puchkov knew almost everything there was to know about him. Even his proclivities. Puchkov had held him when he’d fallen apart, when everything he’d tried to shore up within him had tumbled down spectacularly, and his soul had been rubbed raw against the edges of his complete and utter shame. So much loss, and so much agony, on the loneliest night of his life, sitting in an empty, bleak hospital room. And Puchkov had held him—a complete stranger—through it.
He’d be an absolute fool not to accept this offer.
But where would it lead? Where would this new path in life take him? Dangerous terrain lay ahead. He could practically hear the warning klaxons. Already, he was looking forward too much to Puchkov’s presence. Already, he was enjoying their stolen time together a bit too much. The first man to truly know him, know his shame and everything else, and he’d accepted Sasha. Unconditionally accepted Sasha and all of his mismatched parts and pieces of his life and his soul. It was unprecedented, completely so. Puchkov showed him kindness, showed him compassion, and Sasha turned to that like a tree growing out of the Siberian ice and greening into the sunlight. He wanted to stay. But would it be wise?
Everything he’d worked for had been ripped away from him, though. And this was more than a dream come true. It was a chance to start anew. Build a new life, a good life, where he could be useful. Still serve, and serve someone he looked up to with no small amount of hero worship.
So he’d grab on with both hands and make it work. No matter what. No matter if he had to cut out his own heart one day. He would do it. He would offer it up on a platter for Puchkov. For this man, his president, he would do anything. Whatever Puchkov asked. And whatever he needed. He could feel the conviction settling into him like a vow, deep into his bones and into his blood.
“On one condition,” he said, his voice low.
Puchkov’s eyebrows arched high.
“I will go with you to the US,” Sasha began.
Puchkov’s mouth opened, a protest forming as he scowled.
“And I will never leave your side,” Sasha finished quickly. “I will stay with you for your protection.”
Slowly, Puchkov’s protest turned into a soft smile. “A condition of my own.” He held out one hand. “You will call me Sergey now, as all my friends do.”
* * *
Three weeks passed in a blur.
Sergey arranged for a private apartment in the Kremlin for him, not in the palace itself, but on the grounds and within the red walls. They were, for want of a better word, neighbors.
He met with Ilya—fast talking, hawk-eyed Ilya, a cigarette seemingly perpetually dangling from his lips, bouncing up and down as he moved from topic to topic in rapid fire sequence. He sat in on the briefings Ilya gave Sergey—a riotous cloud of smoke and arguments. He started reading through the mountains of intelligence that Ilya and the FSB managed, the seemingly never-ending stream of analysis and collections. So much of it was focused internally on the reactions to the anti-corruption sweep. Watching and worrying over civil unrest. The rise of hardcore nationalists within Russia, and their belief that President Puchkov was poisoning Russia from within. That Sergey was a pawn of the Americans. That he, himself, was a degenerate homosexual and trying to destroy Russia with the vileness of the West.
He and Sergey still ate dinner together, and Ilya often joined them. Ilya invited himself to Sergey’s liquor cabinet afterward. That became a routine for them: Sergey, Ilya, and Sasha sharing drinks and slowly moving from discussing matters of state and the sometimes-blistering intelligence reports to more personal matters.
Sasha learned Ilya was divorced once and Sergey twice. Ilya was an outrageous flirt, and was currently working on a voluptuous bartender at one of Moscow’s premier lounges, but had never made a move on her, something Sergey teased him about endlessly. Sergey and Ilya wheedled stories about flying out of him. The first time he’d gone supersonic, and how he’d been convinced his jet was broken. The first time he’d seen the blackness of space and the curvature of the earth. He’d known, that day, that he wanted to go higher. To fly above the earth and among the stars.
He admitted his favorite hockey team was the Ugra Mammoths, and that he—embarrassingly—didn’t like basketball at all. Sergey liked the plucky, Far Eastern Amur Khabarovsk hockey team, preferred whiskey over vodka, books over films, and wanted to get away the Russian Far East once things had calmed down. Ilya wanted to go to Copacabana.
One day, a golden bust of Aleksander Pokryshkin appeared, casually sitting on the end table next to the sofa where Sasha always sat. It gleamed, shining with fresh polish, and Sasha had stared, jaw agape.
“You know this man?” Sergey had gestured to the bust, his eyes glinting.
“Of course,” Sasha breathed. “He is three-time hero of Soviet Union. The father of the modern Soviet Air Force. History says he won World War II.” He stared at the figure, at the man’s severe gaze and harsh, metal lines. “I learned about him in flight school. We all did.”
Ilya had chuckled around a cigarette, and Sergey had beamed. “It was gathering dust somewhere. Now it has a better home.” Winking, Sergey had nudged Sasha’s knee with his own and asked for another story of his days in flight school, when he was much younger and had been all feet and hands and fumbling more often than not. His call sign had been Likho, Bad Luck, for the string of calamities that had followed him around in training.
The days and nights rolled on, as did the stories. Unbelievably, Sasha realized he was, for the first time in a long while, on the way to being truly happy. Content. Wholly accepted, at very least. And he didn’t even have to pretend to be something he wasn’t. When Sergey looked at him, he saw him. All of his broken parts and pieces.
And he, in turn liked spending time with Sergey and Ilya. He liked their jokes, their playful sarcasm, and how they’d bicker until inevitably Sergey would turn to Sasha and beckon him into their fast arguing Russian, egging Sasha into agreeing with his side of whatever they were fussing about. He also sat next to Pokryshkin’s golden bust every time he visited.
Finally, Sergey and Sasha went to America for President Spiers’s state visit.
Sergey kept his word, and Sasha stayed at his side. They only separated to sleep in different bedrooms, set apart by a small sitting area. Ilya remained in Moscow, and Sasha and he stayed in close contact throughout the trip. Other than Ethan Reichenbach figuring out the way he looked at Sergey had more to do with his timid, tiny heart and less to do with hawkish personal security protections, the trip had gone smoothly.
And then, Evgeni Konnikov’s body was dumped in Moscow’s Red Square.
When he saw the breaking news alert on his phone, waiting outside the Situation Room in the bowels of the White House, he’d been transported again, back to the cold concrete floor of the locker room at Andreapol. To the sneers and hatred of his squadmates, and his commander hovering above him, fist clenched and spiting in his face. “Disgusting,” he’d growled. And then the beating, the kicks and the hits and the broken bones, over and over again. Until blood was smeared on the ground beneath him, flowing from his nose and his mouth and his torn skin.
Why hadn’t they killed him? They’d done all but by dumping him on the side of the highway in the snow, but why hadn’t they finished the job by their own hands? Was he supposed to slowly suffer and see which would kill him first? The ruptured spleen and internal bleeding, or freezing in the snow?
Miraculously, he’d survived.
But another man like him had not.
Sergey appeared sometime later, his face ashen and haggard. “I’m so sorry,” he’d muttered, speaking in low Russian before pulling him away from the White House staff and telling him everything. About the murderer, his connection to Madigan, and the rogue general’s vendetta against President Spiers. And, it seemed, that hatred was shifting, attaching itself on to President Puchkov, and to the things he believed in. Supported. Cared deeply about.
Guilt by association was something Sasha was well familiar with.
* * *
He shoved his heart away in the lead up to Evgeni’s state funeral. He couldn’t think about it. Couldn’t dwell on the horrific murder, or on Sergey’s state honors for Evgeni. Both thoughts took him to two extremes, to places in his mind and his soul that he couldn’t go. So he shoved his heart down, as deep as it could go.
Until Sergey spoke to the nation about how great a man and a Russian Evgeni was. Never, ever before had he heard someone publicly call someone like him—a gay man—a great man. A great Russian. Sergey had said it once to him, in between his wrecked sobs as he fell apart, but he’d dismissed it as mindless comforts. Sergey didn’t actually believe that, did he?
For Evgeni, he did.
Perhaps, Sergey could believe the same for Sasha?
No. No. This was wrong. He knew it was wrong, and he’d warned himself against it. No. He wouldn’t let Sergey’s compassion, his kindness, his unconditional acceptance, unmake his heart and soul. Unmake his entire world. He’d sworn to himself that he’d guard against this. The warmth building in his chest, and the way a part of him, a fractional, tiny part of him, desired Sergey were dangerous signs, light towers warning of high terrain and deadly mountains ahead.
He tried to shove it all away. The burning hope, the screaming, wailing desperate desire for Sergey to see him as a man, as someone he could be proud of… even, perhaps, maybe, want. Buried it, fast and furious, under the rubble of his own broken heart. There is no future to this. There is no future to this desire. It is hopeless. Utterly, completely hopeless.
But his heart still thundered whenever he looked at Sergey, opening like a blooming flower with a silent yearn that scratched at his raw insides.
When the bombs went off in Moscow after the funeral, during the procession, he’d grabbed Sergey and thrown himself on top of him, taking on the role of one of Sergey’s security agents. He’d thought, for a moment, that bullets were flying, heading their way, and he’d prepared for their heavy bite and hot sting into his back. It wasn’t his job to take a bullet for Sergey, but he would. He’d do it faster, better than the security agents, because none of them cared for Sergey the way he did.
Instead, Sergey had grabbed him in return, holding tight as they sped through the streets and into the Kremlin, and even hours later, when they were all trying to make sense of what had happened. Sergey still stood too close. Hovered. Reached for him, for his arm or his knee, and touched him, as if he was reassuring himself that Sasha was still there at his side.
Of course he was there. He would never leave Sergey’s side. Not when he’d fallen so entirely in love with the man. He would rather cut out his heart.
Timestamp: Sasha and Sergey’s developing friendship in Russia after the corruption purge and before the state dinner; also, when Jack comes to Moscow for the funeral.
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“…his heart still thundered whenever he looked at Sergey, opening like a blooming flower with a silent yearn that scratched at his raw insides.” You have such a way with words, Tal. You bring the heart of the matter to our hearts, every time, in all its raw intensity. I love this back story. Thank you for it. 🙂
Thank you! I’m glad you like the wording! Sometimes I worry I get a bit too purple. I’m glad that it works for you! Thanks!!
Purple? Where? I just went back and had a look, and I don’t see any. 🙂
<3 You're a dear.
Loved it!! So wonderful to get more of an insight into Sergey and Sasha’s relationship. Their bond is clearing just beginning… ??
It really is, isn’t it? The beginning of a powerful, intense, crazy bond. 🙂 I’m really loving writing these two!
Tal, thank you so much for that little bit of extra on Sergey and Sasha’s journey. Really loved it and can’t wait for th next book in this set.
Thanks Lorraine! Glad you liked it!