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.





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!”




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




“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.”




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.




“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.