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! 😉
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 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?”
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.