Happy New Year! Bauer’s Bytes is back!
After the holiday hiatus, and a break for the 12 Days of Gifting event on Facebook, I’m back with a brand new Bauer’s Bytes. This is a very special Byte, and one that has been requested more than a few times.
What was Jack thinking in Sochi? What went through his head? How did he “just forget Ethan like that?” If I had a penny for every time I heard these questions… 🙂
Today, Jack shares his thoughts. This story reveals what was going through Jack’s head during the Big Reveal at Sochi. As such, this story contains MAJOR SPOILERS for a critical plot point for Enemy of My Enemy, Book 2 in the Executive Office Series.
If you have not read Enemy of My Enemy yet, in its entirety, please do not read further.
Enjoy! And Happy New Year!
It can’t be.
No. It’s impossible.
But, right there, struggling against too many hands grabbing at her, holding her down, was Leslie.
His wife. His dead wife.
No. Not dead.
He took off, running full speed across the cracked asphalt, heading for her. Overhead, the Osprey was coming in, lowering itself down as her two giant arms rotated up, turning the plane into a heavy helicopter. Road grit blew hard, peppering his cheeks and chin and eyes with sharp slices that he should have felt. The roar of the rotors, also, should have quaked his bones, sent shockwaves through his eardrums.
Instead, it was like he was underwater, plunged beneath the sea, everything distorted and out of focus. Hazy black shapes, the agents beside Leslie, moving too fast and too slow all at once. Blocking his path, no matter where they were.
Cotton-stuffed ears, the drone of a trans-Atlantic flight, and the dullness right before falling to sleep. Nothing came through; he couldn’t hear, beyond the molasses-slow haze that had descended over him. Had the world fallen to pieces? Was this the calm before the blast? In a moment, would it all be gone?
That moment had already happened. The blast had already hit.
It had slammed square into his chest, into his heart, with Scott’s flick of his wrist, the removal of the hostage’s hood.
Ethan. Ethan, Ethan. Where did Ethan fit into this suddenly-new world, a place where Leslie was alive? His brain wouldn’t process Ethan’s words, or Ethan’s voice, instead translating the sound into ravaging slashes against his heart, and bullet wounds digging into the muscles between his shoulder blades.
A few more steps, running through the thickened soup that seemed to separate him from her. As if the properties of the world had changed, in an instant, and what once was air, matter made light with buoyancy, was suddenly a viscous fluid, fighting against him with every step he took.
Had the world stopped spinning? Had the earth stopped moving beneath his feet? Without the planet’s spin, could he even take another step?
He slid the last foot, dropping to his knees on the loose asphalt. His pants tore, and grit dug into his skin, burning and stabbing all at once. Leslie kicked, screaming, and her arms flailed, a wild thing desperate for freedom. Fighting for her life, fighting against strange men who tried to hold her down. God, how many strangers had tried to hold her back, hold her down? What had turned his wife, the strongest woman he’d ever known, an Amazon warrior goddess, his own Wonder Woman, into this shrieking, flailing thing?
Sixteen years. How much freedom had she lost? How could the months, the day, the hours be quantified into moments? Into a life lost?
How many times had she struggled?
“Les! Les!” No more. She wouldn’t struggle again. Never again. He’d keep her safe, like he had sworn to do. Like he should have been doing, for sixteen years. “Les, it’s me. It’s Jack.”
She froze, as if she’d dropped dead. Had her heart gave out? He wouldn’t blame her. His was about to burst, tear itself to pieces, rend itself to shreds, bleed out inside of his chest. How did the heart handle the reappearance of someone they’d long given up as dead, as gone?
He got his first look at her, and wanted to vomit. Gone was his vibrant wife. Thick, dark hair, so long he could wrap her ponytail around his hand and make his palm and fingers disappear. He’d brushed her hair every night she was home, until the dark lengths had shone and she’d lean back against him, smiling that warm, honey-smile. A round face, her cheekbones made for hearts to fall from, and lips that could smile and tease and bark orders that made men’s spines stiffen from one moment to the next. Her strength, with muscles that seemed more impressive than his, so powerful on her frame, set against his softer lawyer’s body. She had been ferocity and suppleness, power and love, all wrapped in one body. She’d been his Venus, his Aphrodite. How could one body hold everything that she was, he’d often wondered. How did her bones and muscles contain all that she was?
They no longer did. Lank hair, stringy with oil and tangled with mud and dried blood, hung limp around her skeletally thin face. Sunken hollows lived beneath her cheekbones, and canyons had formed beneath her eyes. Years of scabbed and swollen lips had turned her mouth into a bruise, flaking with dried blood and peeling skin.
What had happened to her?
What had he abandoned her to?
“Jack,” she breathed. Her eyes, her beautiful eyes, that used to convey so much to him with just a single glance, darted over his face. That telepathy that couples had, were they could read each other in a moment, a single flick of the eyes, a breathless sound. He’d built that connection with Ethan; he couldn’t read her anymore. “Jack? How— What—“
“Mr. President.” Scott tugged on his arm. “We have to move, now!”
No. No, he couldn’t move past this moment. Things were going to happen when he stood again, and he couldn’t face those things. Not yet. Dammit, his heart already knew, though. Anguish crawled up his throat, clenching it shut. Fingers of grief, of rage, of agony clawed at his neck, and tears swam before of his eyes, obscuring her terrible face. Not yet. Not yet. He didn’t want to face this new world yet. He shook Scott off.
“How are you alive?” he whispered. “I thought you were dead.”
“President?” she gasped, ignoring him. “Jack?”
“Mr. President!” Scott snapped at him, and tugged on his arm, not kindly. “We have to go! Now!”
The Osprey circled and then started its descent, only yards away. Bullets spattered against her massive metal frame, and in response, the doorgunner sent a never-ending volley back toward the shooters, bracing on a ridge overlooking the street. The hum of the bullets droned in Jack’s ears, like a mosquito buzzing too close, above the heavy whomp of the rotors, spinning too slowly in his mind. Like some terrible drum beat, the musical accompaniment to a the heart-rending scene of the movie. The sounds filled him, slithered through his veins all the way to his heart, where the thrumming tried to split apart the muscles and fibers, tried to dislodge the blood and spill it down his insides.
“Go, now, now!” Scott, shouting for the crew to cover Jack. Preparing for his evac. Always a helicopter, always pulling him away.
It was all so unreal, so suddenly. This wasn’t right. This was a dream. A terrible dream. He’d wake up in a moment and grab Ethan and hold him tight. Ethan would wash his nightmare away with his hands, and then with his lips, and everything would be back to the way it was supposed to be. Not this. Not this terrible thing.
Ethan, again. Leaning in. Brushing against Jack, his warm weight pressed against his side. Jack’s knees ground into the asphalt, twisting in his own blood, and streaks of pain shot up through his thighs, grounding him.
Not a dream. Not a nightmare. He couldn’t wake, not from this.
Ethan’s hands reached for Leslie.
“I’ve got her!” he snapped, almost manic. “I’ve fucking got her!” Ethan couldn’t touch Leslie. They shouldn’t be together, shouldn’t even be near. Could the universe survive the meeting of the two, or would some cosmic hole open up, a rend in the universe that would swallow Jack whole? The mobius strip of his life would come undone, torn down the center of his soul.
Ethan stared at him, his jaw hanging open.
Don’t look. God, don’t look.
He gathered her close, her painfully light frame nearly weightless in his arms. Scott came alongside him, wrapping one hand around Jack’s waist, and hauled him to the Osprey. As they ran, her hands clenched around his arms, her thin fingers digging into the soaked fabric of his torn shirt. Her face turned into his chest, burying in the valley between his pecs.
His stomach twisted, and then twisted gain. That spot wasn’t hers. It wasn’t her place any longer. His body had been given to Ethan, had become a temple for Ethan’s worship, and it was Ethan’s place to nuzzle at the side of his pec, press his lips to Jack’s skin and breath out, making Jack shiver. It wasn’t right, having another in the places that were Ethan’s.
But before his body was Ethan’s, it had been Leslie’s.
The Osprey saved his sanity, and his heart, from going any further. He set her on the flight deck, passing her to the hands of the flight medic. Her eyes went wide – another pair of unknown hands grabbing at her body – and she reached back for him, terror blazing through her.
This close, the roar of the rotors was too loud for any words to be spoken. He did what he could. Brushed her hair, flapping in the wash of the Osprey, off her face and behind her ears. Smiled at her. Squeezed her hands, like he did on their wedding day, a promise in every inch of his skin.
He had to turn away from her, but he didn’t want to. He had to face what was behind him, but he wasn’t strong enough for that.
She squeezed his hands back, and smiled.
His heart cracked, a dark fault line splitting him in two.
He turned, and strode back to where Sergey and Sasha were kneeling on the asphalt, still holding a defensive line that had crumbled away, the agents disappearing into the Osprey one by one. All save Daniels, still standing sentinel at Ethan’s side.
Don’t look. God, don’t look at Ethan.
He dropped in front of Sergey. “We’re headed for Turkey. We can take you, too. Give you political asylum.” Police sirens wailed, mixing with the rata-tat-tat of bullets and explosions blooming into the night, only blocks away. Screeching tires, shouts in Russian and English. The sounds of the world ending.
“No.” Sergey shook his head. “No, Jack. I have to stay. I have to fight for Russia. I have to help my people.”
No, not Sergey too. He couldn’t lose everything in so few minutes. It couldn’t be possible. “Sergey, that’s suicide—“
“Yes, Jack. Maybe. But I will die the right way.” Sergey grabbed him, holding his shoulders, and for a moment, Jack thought he’d shatter beneath his friend’s’ grasp. Break into a billion pieces, and collapse to the Russian street. Blow away in the wind. Part of him yearned for the release. “Go. Get out of here. Save yourself.” Sergey kept speaking, even as Jack swayed beneath his hands. “Sasha, you should go. You should—“
“No.” Sasha scowled at Sergey. “I will say with you.”
Vomit choked his throat. Sasha’s steadfast love, his eternal devotion to Sergey, even in the midst of the world falling apart around them. I had that love, he thought, wailing from the corners of his soul. I had that love. Beside him, Ethan’s presence was like a black hole, pulling at every atom of his being. I had that love, he whimpered again, as the remains of his heart shivered and shriveled, drawing up like a wounded, anguished thing.
He reached for Sergey, his one friend through everything, the man one half of a friendship that had redefined the world, and remade his own world. Was this goodbye? It was too much, too fast. Too many goodbyes, too many closed doors. Too much change, happening between one breath and the next. He couldn’t keep up. How was everyone else keeping up? How were any of them still standing?
“I will do everything I can for you. Everything.”
Sergey nodded once, and then moved off to the darkness at the side of the road. Sasha, ever faithful, shadowed his movements. Jack watched them disappear into the darkness. Do svidanya.
Ethan. Ethan’s voice. God, if he turned, Ethan would be right there, ready to hold him, pull him into his arms, and shield him from this upside down world. He ached, God, he ached for that. Yearned. Ethan could make this right. Ethan was his shelter, his rock, his home. He’d carved a life between Ethan’s arms, laid his cornerstone beneath the shield of Ethan’s heart. They could get through this together.
How could he reconcile loving Ethan when his wife was suddenly alive? He’d mourned her, sobbed for her, cried himself to sleep for a year, and had used every wish he’d been granted for five straight years on begging for her return. Every fortune cookie, wishbone, and birthday candle, spent on this very wish. That she was truly alive, hidden somewhere, and would come home. Would come back to him.
He’d lost faith after the years had passed. Accepted what was written fact, etched on a piece of parchment and a marble headstone in Arlington. His wife was dead.
He’d never asked for Ethan’s love, never sought it out. Never went seeking for a new life, and a love that had remade everything about himself. His soul, purified with Ethan’s love. His body, remade down to his veins with Ethan’s kisses, the caress of his hands, the stroke of their bodies together. He was a man reborn, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of his former life, his soul more radiant than he’d ever been before.
God, he loved Ethan. Loved him in a gut-punch purity, a fire that circled his heart. Loved him to his marrow, and beyond.
But how could it go on? How could they go forward with this?
He’d vowed to love Leslie until death did they part. She wasn’t dead. He’d made that mistake already. How many years had she been tortured? How many times? How many nights had she cried out for him? Whispered his name in the darkness, like he had hers? How much hope had she spent, and had she ever given up on him? Like he’d given up on her? How could he ever make this right?
Penance. Eternal, everlasting penance. He had to make up for the years, the months, the days, hours, and minutes that he wasn’t there for her. How could he ever be happy again, knowing what he’d left her to? Knowing what he’d given up on?
She, half-dead, forgotten, anguished and alone, and him, in love, glorious, soul on fire love, and happy.
There was no way for those two realities to coexist. No way for him to keep Ethan, keep his love, and serve at her feet, whispering apology after apology to the ground she tread on.
He could never be happy again.
Don’t look at Ethan. Never again.
You don’t deserve happiness. You don’t deserve him. You, vile creature that found love and laughter while Leslie was tortured.
Don’t you dare look at Ethan.
He was weak, oh so weak, and he’d fall into Ethan’s arms if he looked into the burnished bronze pools of his eyes. If he felt the warmth of his skin, the gentleness of his hold. He’d fall, as hard as he’d fallen in love, but that path wasn’t open to him any longer.
The world had stopped spinning. His world had stopped, and it would never start again. Ethan would have to spin on without him.
And his own heart, whatever was left of it after the cold concrete of Sochi, would spin on, tangled with Ethan’s memory for the rest of his days.
He jogged back to the Osprey, his eyes picking out Leslie’s emaciated face in the hold. She was biting her lip, desperately searching for him through the mass of Secret Service agents and military uniforms. Her shoulders were drawn, tense in a way that he hadn’t ever seen before. Like a caged animal, wounded prey searching for safety. That wasn’t his wife. God, what had happened to her? What had turned her into this? What had he abandoned her to?
He hauled himself up into the hold, ignoring the agents and soldiers all trying to help him. His hands, bloody, slipped on the metal grips, and he stumbled, then crawled toward Leslie. Pain flared in the ground meat of the skin over his knees, squelching blood with every forward crawl. She kept her eyes fixed to him, hope and terror mixing in equal parts. He could never make her whole again, bring back the vibrant woman that she once had been.
Instead, he had to make do with his failure, his complete failure as a man, and as a husband. He would scrape together the pieces that remained, help her reassemble the fragile shards of her life, build her back up into a beautiful mosaic. He’d give her everything, everything that he’d taken for himself, while she’d been hidden away from the world, beaten and brutalized. He would lay the world at her feet, completely devoted to healing her soul.
Tears flowed over his eyes as he crawled to her, reached out with both of his arms. A strangled sob caught in her throat as he poured herself into his arms, curling against his chest and burrowing her face in the hollow beneath his neck.
He shivered, his skin not used to a body that wasn’t Ethan’s. Ethan’s, that space on his body was Ethan’s. He was meant to hold Ethan in this way. Was meant to be held by Ethan in this way.
Behind him, Scott’s gruff murmur slipped through the shouts of the crewmen, the rotors, the bullets, and the Osprey’s creaking frame lifting off from Russian soil.
“Are you with me?” Scott grunted. “You with us?”
Don’t look. Don’t ever look. You don’t deserve to look.
He squeezed his eyes shut, but tears flowed from the corners, cascading down his cheeks in dirty waterfalls. Leslie clung to him, but in his mind, he held Ethan, and spoke to him as he whispered into her hair. “I’m so sorry. I’m so God damn sorry. How could this happen? How?”
There were no answers for him. There was nothing but the grasp of her frail fingers against his arms, and the sounds of Ethan chambering a round in his rifle and taking up position against the hold’s open door.
His wife was alive, and his love, his life with Ethan, was at an end. It could not be his any longer. There was no more happiness for him, not in this world of his broken assumptions, failed promises, and a guilt that swallowed his soul. He tasted ash and fire on his tongue, the ruins of his life; no the ruins of three lives. Three lives destroyed, because of him.
He was nothing. Less than nothing. Worthless. Beyond worthless.
As light as love had made him, guilt, followed by the ravaging snarls of shame, suffocating, clenching shame, dragged him down deep within himself, until all that he was lived in the dry and dusty canyons of his once-full heart.
Timestamp: Jack, in Sochi, after the reveal of the hostage’s identity as his long-dead wife, Leslie.