I Want it To Be Me – Mike’s POV from Hush, Ch. 14

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, I’m writing a Byte from Hush that Maria requested: Can we see what was going on with Mike during Chapter 14 in Hush? Why did he push Tom away? What was going through his mind?

Great prompt, Maria! <3


 

Mike stared at his coffeemaker. Each dark drop dribbled into the carafe, steam and gurgles belching from the dingy white plastic machine. He’d carted it from the Navy to West Virginia to DC. It was a piece of shit, nothing fancy like Silvio’s chrome and stainless steel espresso maker, but it was reliable.

 

God, he needed coffee. After being up the entire night, tossing and turning, he wasn’t going to get through the day.

 

Thoughts of Tom consumed him.

 

He should never, ever have said yes to dinner.

 

Damn his curiosity. Damn him for wondering. Damn him for wanting. Damn him for even getting friendly with the man. He’d been distant for months. Judge Brewer was just a judge. Why did he even have to go there? Why did he have to get friendly? Dinner… drinks… What the hell had he been thinking?

 

Damn Kris, too. How dare Kris push him toward Tom, when he didn’t even have the guts to follow through on his own love life. How dare Kris push him to seek his happiness, the man of his dreams, his prince charming, when Kris slept his way through half of DC, and ignored the one man who actually wanted something more with him. If Kris was exempt from the game of love, then why wasn’t Mike? Why couldn’t he go just back to his carousel of men, his night after night of GrindMe and bars?

 

Exhaling, he rested his forehead on his arms, closing his eyes as the coffeemaker gurgled.

 

And, God damn Silvio, too, for fucking a man in his kitchen and making him rip it all out. Making him brew his coffee in his bathroom, like a fucking Neanderthal.

 

Why did he even care about Silvio’s betrayal that much? They’d barely been a couple, in hindsight. Silvio working so much, dashing around the country and spending the night in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans. How long had he been cheating, really? Had he ever been faithful?

 

Damn it. That’s why he cared.

 

That’s why he wanted to get off the carousel of ass.

 

He wanted that one man, that one special man. Someone he could cherish, and who cherished him.

 

He wanted Prince Charming.

 

Why did he have to be Tom Brewer?

 

Tom fucking Brewer, with his cute smiles and his self-deprecating chuckle and his earnest, almost painful desire to be just and fair. With his lean swimmer’s body, and the way he’d just melted into Mike’s hold, like he’d waited his whole life to be in Mike’s arms. With the way they fit together, so perfectly. From holding him in his arms to holding him in his heart, imagining mornings and evenings together. Shared coffee and playing with Etta Mae.

 

He could be so happy holding Tom on the couch, hands laced together, wiling away the hours talking about their day, about plans for the weekend, or a thousand other things.

 

It only took one weekend to see, to know, deep down inside of him, how they fit together. One dinner. One kiss. One brunch, and one afternoon.

 

The second dinner was a mistake. He’d already known, he’d known Saturday night that they couldn’t pursue this. Why punish himself? Why spend Sunday with Tom? Why take him to his romantic dinner spot, why imagine more? Why kiss him, and kiss him, and feel Tom’s body surge against his own?

 

They just couldn’t do this. They couldn’t start a relationship. He wasn’t going to start anything that would only end in disaster, again. No matter how amazing Tom was, he couldn’t go through with that. Better to have loved and lost, Shakespeare said. But Shakespeare didn’t have to work with the man of his dreams, didn’t have to face him day in and day out.

 

What would happen, if they tried? Tom would blossom. He would bloom, a rose in mid-summer bursting with glory. He would find himself, and all the joy he’d denied himself for years.

 

That would take him away from Mike.

 

Why would he want to tie down with Mike, who’d done all that, who’d had the gay twenties, the rollicking great times that single gayhood could be? Why wouldn’t Tom want to experience that freedom, that pride that shot straight to your veins, that joy that you could live your life, love anyone? Why would he want to be tied to Mike through all of that?

 

So, Mike would be left. Tom would grow distant. He’d want more. They’d fight. Tom would want to go out, flirt, get attention. Like from that guy, that asshole at the bar who had slipped Tom his business card. Jesus, Tom was probably going to call him, probably going to end up kissing him, too.

 

His hands clenched, arms shaking. Christ, he didn’t want to think about Tom with another man.

 

But it was bound to happen. It was just bound to happen.

 

Better to never start something than watch it slowly die, watch him lose the man of his dreams inch by inch.

 


 

Hey you. 🙂 Haven’t seen you yet today. Miss you.

 

He knew the text would come eventually. He just didn’t think it would feel like a punch to his gut.

 

Mike chewed his lip as he stared at the screen, struggling for something to say back to Tom. He was in the stacks, in the rows and rows of case files and folders at US Marshals headquarters, chasing old threats and going over long-dead prison chatter. Hiding, that’s what he was doing. He was hiding.

 

He had to kill this with Tom. He had to kill it before it got out of control, grew a life of it’s own. Before he fell any harder for the man.

 

[At headquarters. Reviewing threat assessments.]

 

Cold. Nothing like their old texts, when he worried about whether one or two exclamation points was the suave thing to do, to show just enough interest, but not too much.

 

Everything all right?

 

[Yep. Routine stuff.]

 

He waited, and waited, and waited. Waited for what felt like an hour, begging Tom to message back. It wasn’t through, please, not yet. Even though it had to be, God, he didn’t want it to end. He wanted to be in Tom’s office that moment, leaning over his desk, catching his eye, inviting him to lunch. Maybe just shut the door and kiss him all the way through lunch, never let go of his lips. Never stop gazing into those eyes.

 

No. It had to be this way.

 

It could hurt now, or it could hurt so much worse, in the future. When Tom decided to leave him.

 

What did that song say? Had to leave before he got left.

 

The singer made it sound easy.

 

He stared at his silent phone.

 

It wasn’t fair.

 


 

Tuesday evening, he finally headed back to the courthouse. Thank God it was a week he could avoid his office, and didn’t have trial. But he had trial prep, and a thousand other things to do, so he needed to put some hours in at his desk.

 

Just, not around Tom.

 

Tuesdays, Tom taught at Georgetown, so he was guaranteed to not see him.

 

Or so he thought.

 

Tom silhouetted his door, a portrait of practiced neutrality, a lawyer’s perfect poise. Save for those eyes. Pools of burnt hurt, the color of coffee they could have brewed together on lazy weekends, the color of Rock Creek Park and the dirt beneath Etta Mae’s paws. A life he could have had.

 

“What are you doing here? I thought you were teaching?”

 

Tom almost hid his flinch. “Left my phone on accident. Thought it might be important that I had it.”

 

He heard what Tom didn’t say. He was waiting for texts. Hoping for texts. From Mike? Or from someone else? Had he already moved on?

 

He couldn’t do this. “I’ll drive you home,” he growled.

 

Tom followed him out to the front of the courthouse. Silence wreathed him, a shadow that Mike couldn’t go near. Tom was untouchable now. He didn’t have a right to his thoughts. To his feelings.

 

The drive was excruciating. If only he had a teleporter. His neck locked, eyes fixed to the road. Don’t look. Don’t look. Temptation sat beside him. He wanted to collapse at every red light, fall sideways into Tom’s lap, tell him he made a mistake, tell him he wanted Tom, even if it was only for a short time. He didn’t want to let him go. He didn’t want to lose Tom. He wanted him back, wanted that weekend to replay, a Groundhog Day weekend for eternity. His fingers clenched his steering wheel, so hard, so tight, he nearly tore the leather.

 

He pulled up to the curb at Tom’s house.

 

“I’d invite you in, but…”

 

I want to come into your life, Tom. I want to be your partner. I want to be your everything. I do.

 

“But I take it that’s not going to happen again. Ever.”

 

He looked away. Stared across the street. If he looked at Tom, if he looked at him even from the corner of his eye, he’d collapse.

 

“Whatever happened, I’m sorry, Mike. I honestly never expected anything. I knew I wasn’t your type. I shouldn’t have…” Tom sighed.  

 

You are everything I want. Everything, Tom. 

 

“I’m sorry this has ended our friendship. I really, really do think you’re great.” Tom’s voice went tight. “You’re going to make some guy the happiest man on the planet someday. He’s a lucky man.”

 

Mike nearly tore his steering wheel off. I want him to be you.

 

Tom slid from the car. He turned back to Mike—

 

No, he couldn’t look.

 

Mike slammed on the gas and squealed away, up the block.

 

Someday, you’re going to give some man your heart, Tom. I’m already jealous of him. And I want to be him, so fucking much.  

 

He got three blocks before he collapsed against the steering wheel at the red light, and the sobs he’d pushed back since Sunday night finally burst free.

 

He sat in the wash of red light and fought against turning around, rushing back, pounding on Tom’s door until he opened, and Mike could hold him, kiss him again. Even if it was just for one more time.

 

No. Tom needed this. He needed to be free. He needed to live. He needed to be proud, and open. Not tied to Mike like an anchor.

 

The light changed to green.

 

Mike drove forward.

 


Timestamp: Hush, Chapter 14, Mike’s POV

 

Excerpt from Kris’s Novel – Whisper

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

This week, you’re getting another excerpt from Kris’s novel…. as well as the title! Kris’s novel will be called Whisper.

I’m playing this one close to the vest, keeping most excerpts and details under wraps. I am crossing all of my fingers and toes for a late March/Early April release!

Enjoy this excerpt of Kris’s forthcoming novel, Whisper


 

Islamabad, Pakistan

March 29th, 2002

 

The web stretched across an entire wall in the CIA station. Spindly lines crisscrossed each other, tracing points back to the dead center.

Someone had drawn a reticle around the photo in the center. A black marker sniper’s scope circled the black and white passport photo of a thin, young Saudi with a close-cropped beard and mustache and his hair hidden under a neat keffiyeh.

Abu Zahawi.

CIA headquarters said he was Al Qaeda’s third highest officer, third in command after Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. He’d been the external emir, the high commander, of the Khaldan training camp in Afghanistan, before the invasion. The Khaldan camp was where the hijackers were trained, where Bin Laden regularly visited. Where all high ranking Al Qaeda operatives transited.

They needed Zahawi.

And they would have him. Tonight.

 


 

In January, Kris, George, and the rest of their combined CIA-Special Forces team stepped out of a helicopter in Islamabad and started fighting the CIA’s next war.

 “We have a new position at the CIA,” Bill, Islamabad’s Chief of Station, had told them all during their first briefing. “Targeteer. These guys are going to be the most important people in the agency. They’re hunters. Anything and everything we get on a high value target gets routed straight to their desk. The targeteers package all of that intel together. Make sense of it. And then they find our targets.” Bill thought fast and spoke fast, and his eyes peered around the room, dancing over each person on the team. “It’s part forensic psychology, part jigsaw puzzle, part sifting through haystacks, and part voodoo. You’ve got to be a cultural anthropologist, a translator, a psychologist, and a psychic. So. Who is going to be the targeteer on this team?”

George hadn’t hesitated. “Kris Caldera. That’s made for him.”

Bill’s stare had pierced Kris, a laser burning right through him. He had a thick stack of folders on the table in front of him stuffed with CDs and DVDs, papers and photos. Bill pushed it all toward Kris. “Here’s your first target. Abu Zahawi. He’s in Pakistan. And we have to find him.”

“He’s in Pakistan” turned out to be the agency’s most popular line. Everyone was in Pakistan, from Bin Laden to the most minor Al Qaeda recruit, and they were supposed to find every last one of them. Pakistan was the size of Texas but had the population of the United States. Karachi was the fourth largest city in the entire world. Finding anyone in the crushing mass of humanity, much less someone purposefully hiding, was a near impossible task.

Zahawi’s name, and about a dozen phone numbers associated with him, kept coming up in documents and debris and pocket recovered in Afghanistan, from destroyed Al Qaeda camps, captured fighters, and picked off the dead. From Marines and soldiers, combing through the remains of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, to Islamabad, hordes and hordes of information flowed.

Not all of it was intelligent. There was just too much of it, too many bits and pieces and names and addresses scattered across thousands of leads.

Kris nearly buckled.

Palmer’s men hit the streets, going to Lahore, Peshawar, and Karachi, trying to scour the cities with a small passport photo, searching for Zahawi like they could pick him from the millions and millions of people crowding the streets. David came back from each trip frustrated and filthy, and always exhausted.

“I need more resources,” Kris said, at the end of January. “I can’t make a man appear with nothing but luck.”

“What do you need?”

“Give me an entire electronic net over Pakistan. Zero in on the numbers we have of known Al Qaeda agents. The phone numbers connected to Zahawi. If anyone calls those, who do they call after that, and then after that, and then after that. We need to build a web.”

The invisible electronic net dropped. Calls were vacuumed up, scrubbed and searched for names and keywords. When calls to Zahawi’s known numbers didn’t connect, America’s digital eyes tracked the calls they made next, asking for instruction, and then again, and again. Everything went on the wall, a giant web of connections, of unrelated people trying to live in hiding, exposed by the pattern of their phone calls.

Finally, they found Zahawi’s new numbers.

Zahawi had fourteen new numbers tied to fourteen locations. Thirteen in Faisalabad, the third most populous city in Pakistan, and situated far from the Afghanistan border, south of Islamabad. One in Lahore, a city almost on the Indian border.

They hit the streets again, winding through the tangled, twisted alley and dirt roads of Faisalabad. Faisalabad was a rough, dangerous, and hopelessly poor city. A never-ending sprawl of mudbrick homes and open sewage, neighborhood dump lots, and precarious slums. Children played in raw sewage. The stench of rot slipped under their clothes, into their nose, down their throat, gagging them all. Cars and rickshaws and bicycles and donkeys and camels crowded every inch of the roadways. Walkers glided in and out of traffic lanes and passed angry cabbies shouting in thirteen different languages.

Most people living in Faisalabad lived on less than five dollars a day. And most were fierce adherents to a firebrand fundamentalist Islam, married to a violent rage. Life in Faisalabad was epically shitty. Why not desperately wish to turn to the past, to the golden days of Islam, when life was vibrant, peaceful, and Muslims were regarded as the enlightened intellectuals of the world? Why not crave that historical power again? Everything to blame in Faisalabad was the West’s fault, anyway. For putting them at the bottom of the world order.

Going into Faisalabad meant working undercover. David and his team dressed in salwar kameezzes, breezy tunics and linen pants. They’d kept their thick beards from Afghanistan. David blended in the best, with his bronze skin and his native Arabic, and he played the part of a foreign fighter working the streets. He was the point man for all of Kris’s operations.

Kris watched David take to the mission like a fish to water, seamlessly blending into the passion Islamic fundamentalism. Even there, even in Faisalabad. David moved like he knew how to live in a city on the edge, under the thumb of oppression and desperate poverty. There was something there, something Kris wanted to ask about, but couldn’t. Not yet.

Kris, slender, even with his added muscles from the war in Afghanistan, played the part of the wife. He donned the head to toe black hijab. He tied the niqab around his face, peered out of the narrow eye slit, and kept his body hidden from view under the sweep of black. His hijab collected filth from the streets as he swept over puddles of sewage, walked up and own dusty alleys. To add to the disguise, Kris lined his eyes with kohl, like the local women did.

David couldn’t tear his eyes away.

Kris and David walked the streets as if they were married, scoping out all thirteen properties. They found squat mudbrick homes, small one-room huts with corrugated tin roofs, and shacks on the edge of slums. Hatred seethed from the slum, like a physical pulse.

“We can’t take the entire slum. But there are Al Qaeda fighters in there, for sure.”

“Zahawi is the target. We have to find him.

The last location was a large house, almost a villa, built of concrete cinderblocks instead of mud bricks. Three stories and surrounded by an eight-foot-tall privacy fence. Every window was closed and shuttered. In the sweltering one-hundred-degree heat and humidity, that stood out. That stood out like an electric sign in the sky, pointing straight down. All of Faisalabad had thrown open their doors and windows, trying to cool down with the limp, rotten breeze.

All of Faisalabad, save for them.

“Bad news in there.” David leaned into Kris’s hijab.

Sweat poured down Kris’s back. He was roasting, nearly passing out under the hijab. “No one keeps their windows closed. Not in this heat.”

“Let’s get back to the safehouse.”

George had rented a safehouse in Faisalabad, paying cash for a villa in the wealthy sector of town. The mansion had fourteen bedrooms, twelve sitting rooms, and a huge plot of land, surrounded by a giant fence that kept all curious onlookers far away. From the roof, they had satellite connections with fourteen different communications relays, from the CIA to the military. The team lived in the safehouse and rotated surveillance on each of Zahawi’s locations.

A backup team from Langley was sent in, too, to help share the load. They arrived while David and Kris were scoping out the villa.

“Kris!” Richard Wright, Kris’s mentor at Langley, jogged to him when they returned to the safehouse and wrapped Kris up in a hug, holding on for longer than Kris had expected. “God, it’s good to see you again.”

They caught up that night, on the roof. Richard had brought three bottles of wine, and he and Kris downed a bottle of shitty chardonnay as they sat in lawn chairs and tried to breathe through their mouths, tried to not smell the fetid stench of Faisalabad.

“You blew the door open, Kris.” Richard held out his plastic cup of white wine for a toast. “You blew the door for all us gays open. Going to Afghanistan… and kicking ass.”

Kris’s jaw had dropped. “Us gays? Richard?”

“I entered the CIA before you. When it was still not allowed.”

It was only 1996 that the law had been changed, allowing homosexuals to legally possesses security clearances. Prior to 1996, any gay man or woman was considered a liability, someone who could be blackmailed, someone untrustworthy. Someone not allowed into the hallowed halls of the national security establishment.

“I loved that you never played the bullshit games.” Richard smiled at him, his eyes bright. Glowing. “You never tried to hide. I wanted to help you. Wanted to see you succeed. And, God damn. Did you ever.”

“I just did my job.”

“You did a hell of a job. You’re a fantastic officer, Kris. And you’re paving the way for everyone after you. No one thinks twice anymore about us.”

“You going to come out?”

Richard had smiled at him, over the rim of his cup. “If there was someone to come out for.”

Kris froze.

“I always wanted to ask you to dinner, Kris. Back in DC. I always want to get to know you better.” He leaned forward, fiddling with his wine. “Maybe, after this is over, we could try? The Marriott in Islamabad isn’t the Capitol Grille in DC, but…” Richard had smiled, hope tumbling from him. “I just really want to spend some time with you.”

“Richard…” Kris had squeezed his eyes closed, had leaned forward. His head hung between his slumped shoulders. “Richard, I’m sorry. I’m seeing someone.”

Shock pushed Richard back. “Oh. I didn’t know. I thought you were single, in DC—”

“I was.” Kris cringed. “It’s… new.”

“In Afghanistan?” Richard’s jaw dropped.

“It’s secret. We’re not out. We’re—” Kris fumbled for words, stumbling over his exhaustion and the wine.

“He’s military.” Richard nodded slowly, exhaling. He stared into his cup of wine like he was divining tea leaves. “I understand. I do.” He sighed. “Whoever he is, he’s a lucky guy.” Richard smiled. “I hope we can still be friends.”

“I’d like that.”

 


 

The night before the raid, he and David lounged in a tepid bath surrounded by stubby candles. The safehouse had sunken mosaic tubs in most bedrooms, playthings for the wealthy who lived stratospheres above the rest of the city’s inhabitants. David rubbed his feet, massaged his legs, kissed his way up and down Kris’s body. They made love silently, Kris riding David as his hands traced David’s chest, his body, mapped the terrain of his lover. Candlelight flickered over their skin, threw shadows against the walls. Kris came with a muffled cry, his head thrown back, David’s hands clinging to him, his arms wrapped around his back. David’s lips kissed every inch of his chest.

Their teammates were on either side of the paper-thin walls. Kris could hear their laughter, their conversations, between his gasps, his muffled cries.

Who knew about them? George, for sure. Had he told Ryan? Ryan was still his deputy. Jim and Philip were oblivious, wrapped up in their own projects. Derek had stayed in Afghanistan. Jackson? He was David’s roommate, and David spent all his time in Kris’s. What did Jackson think about his vacant partner? And Palmer? He’d seen them kissing, back in Tora Bora. But David had become distant from his team since moving to Pakistan, moving with Kris and on the ground instead of holding surveillance and going on night raids, like the others.

They weren’t supposed to be doing this. David’s entire career could come apart, shatter under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell rules of the military.

Sleeping with a partner on an overseas mission happened, but it was generally filed under “ill advised” by the CIA and “disastrous” when it went all wrong.

It was illegal to be gay in Pakistan. Illegal to love another man. They were in Pakistan on diplomatic cover, but the bond between Pakistan and the United States was tenuous, a daily negotiation of threats and bluster. A scandal like this, that Pakistan could use to claim the US disrespected their culture, their laws, and flagrantly violated their beliefs, could tear their alliance apart.

And, for the first time, Kris had some measure of respect. Richard’s words haunted him, repeating in his mind on an echoing loop. His name was said with praise. People believed in him. Thought he could do something. That he wasn’t just a fag or a puff, a limp-wristed gay that people put up with. His whole life, he’d been treated like half a man.

Until now.

But for how long? Should they stop? Should they just put it aside, focus on their mission? They were risking too much, with this.

But he couldn’t. He couldn’t set David aside, couldn’t put him out of his mind. David had become linked to him, inextricably linked, like two stars orbiting each other. Words like “combat stress” and “adrenaline bonds” tried to nip at him from the darkness, but he pushed them back.

David was in his bones, in his blood. In his soul. He lived the rhythms of their days, set his heart by the moments he stole with David. He’d never let that go, not unless David was ripped from him. And even then—

David held him after they finished, cradling Kris close with his forehead pressed to Kris’s temple as they caught their breath. Sticky Pakistani heat clung to their sweaty skin. A limp ceiling fan circled overhead, lazy circles that moved stale air and the stench of sex. Could their teammates smell what they did? Could they smell David on Kris, like Kris always could?

Much later, Kris pulled the curtains back and stared out their bedroom window. He’d wrapped up in a silk robe, a gift David had bought for him during one of his undercover trips into Pakistan’s twisting cities. He’d bought Kris a small mountain of gifts since they’d arrived in country. Silk shirts and linen suits, long robes, and the finest salwar kameezzes in all of Pakistan. A gold necklace, a filigree of the Hand of Fatima, that he wore under everything, every day. Now that they weren’t in Afghanistan and weren’t in combat any longer, they got to change their clothes every day, actually look decent again. David, it seemed, had taken it upon himself to make Kris’s wardrobe the finest in all of Pakistan. Kris reveled in David’s gifts, in the luxury. In the knowledge that every day, no matter where David was, Kris was on his mind.

David stood behind him, kissing his bare shoulder where the robe slipped down. The call to prayer sounded, the wail of a hundred muezzins across the city rising as one. There were no stars above Faisalabad, no moon in the sky. The stars were spread below, a blanket of lanterns and fires that turned the air to wood smoke and musk.

Across Faisalabad, somewhere in the darkness and the smoke, Abu Zahawi prayed. His last prayers as a free man.

 


 

“In three hours, we leave the safe house in our breach teams. At zero one thirty, each breach team will stage outside their target location.” Kris pointed to the giant map on the wall, with each of the fourteen targets marked and surrounded by surveillance photos. “Pakistani police will meet you at each target.”

An FBI agent, from a team that had been flown in from DC overnight, interrupted. “Is Pakistani ISI involved?”

“No. ISI has not been briefed.” Pakistan’s military intelligence, ISI, had been caught leaking information to Al Qaeda, both during the Afghan invasion and after. Kris kept them iced out of his entire operation. The FBI agent, jet lagged and clinging to a mug of coffee after sunset, nodded.

“At exactly zero one fifty, each breach team will stage at the outer breach marker for each site. Your team leads have your specific coordinates for your site in their packet. At precisely zero two hundred, at all fourteen sites, we breach simultaneously. The order of entry is as follows: The Pakistani police enter first and subdue any resistance. They separate the women and children form the men. The FBI enters second and preserves the scene for evidence collection. The CIA enters last.”

The FBI, appraised of Kris’s operation to catch Zahawi, had insisted on inserting into the takedown team. The September 11th attacks were considered an active criminal investigation in addition to being an intelligence failure and the new target of an independent Congressional oversight investigation. Jurisdiction was overlapping, and messy.

“I and my team—” Kris nodded to Richard, David, Ryan, Jackson, and Palmer. “—will accompany the breach team at Target X-Ray.” The last target on the list, the villa he and David had found with the windows closed and locked.

“You think Zahawi is at that location?”

“We think there’s something bad going on there, yes. It could be Zahawi. It could be another cell of Al Qaeda fighters. Whatever is going on, it’s bad news.” Kris, standing on a coffee table in the middle of the safe house’s living room, met everyone’s gaze. Nearly sixty people stared back at him. Listened to him give orders. “Any questions?”

 


 

Zero one fifty-five.

They were well into zero dark hundred, the dead of night when Special Forces loved to operate, when the CIA always made their moves. Kris breathed through his mouth, huddled against the privacy fence around Target X-Ray, behind David and in front of Richard. Ryan and Jackson brought up the rear of their breach team.

His body armor tried to pull his shoulders off. The thick ceramic plates weighed at least forty pounds each. He felt tugged toward the ground, like he should just lower tip forward, let gravity do its thing.

Zero one fifty-six. At thirteen other sites, breach teams were waiting, following Kris’s plan to the letter. There was no room for error in this. No room for one team to strike early, give a target time to make a phone call, or start screaming, or worse, shooting. In Faisalabad in the middle of the night, only the dogs were out. The city was silent, five million people locked in their houses. Unless something went wrong.

Zero one fifty-eight. The check came down the line. All good? David reached behind him, tapped the side of Kris’s leg. All good. He sent the signal back, tapping Richard. Heard Richard reach for Ryan. Then it came back, two taps from Richard on his thigh. All good. He reached forward for David. David intercepted his hand. Squeezed. Kris squeezed back.

Zero one fifty-nine. They’d synchronized their watches to the second. He watched them count down.

Three. Two. One.

Pakistani police at the head of the breach team blew open the lock on the privacy fence and wrenched the heavy metal gate open. Boots slapped concrete and dirt, thundering toward the front door. Kris heard echoes of booms across Faisalabad, bouncing through the warren of mudbrick and concrete homes. He followed behind, running with David and stacking at the fence line as the Pakistani’s prepared to break down the front door. Shouts rose inside the villa. Lights flicked on in the third floor.

Clang. The Pakistan police officer who’d swung the battering ram stumbled backward. Another rushed forward, grabbing the battering ram and trying again. Clang. “It’s reinforced!” he shouted. “They reinforced the door with steel!”

Slap slap slap. Dirt shot up from the ground, geysers from bullets slamming into the dust at their feet. Glass shattered, rained down on their heads. Dark muzzles, the bores of AK-47s, poked out of the upstairs windows.

“Take cover!” David grabbed Kris and hauled him around the side of the house, away from the windows and the shooters above. Ryan and Richard retreated behind the privacy fence.

“Grenade!” One of the Pakistani police officers shouted. A thud bounced and rolled, inside the house. Frantic Arabic, shouts that rose in pitch, until—

Boom.

Scrambling, David poked around the house’s corner, looking down the barrel of his rifle. The shooters in the upper windows were gone. Pakistani police officers were going through a ground level window into a smoke-filled hallway.

“Open this door! Open this fucking door!” Two FBI agents banged on the front door, their backs flat to the wall. They’d been trapped on the other side of the gunfire from above, totally exposed.

The front door burst out of its frame, kicked open by the largest Pakistani police officer on the team. Cursing, the FBI agents ran inside. “Hands up! Hands up!”

“They have to say it in Arabic,” Kris growled. “Did they forget?”

“We gotta get in there.” David nodded to the front door. “I’ll cover you.”

Kris ran, David following in his footsteps, his rifle trained on the empty third floor windows. Whoever had been shooting at them was gone. For now.

Richard, Ryan, and Jackson met them at the door. Shouts barreled through the house. Flashlight beams crisscrossed the smoke. The FBI agents were stuck in the front room, hollering at someone to put their hands up.

Shouting, again, in Arabic. This time, from outside. Kris turned, back to the outside. “The roof. They’re on the roof!”

David and Jackson flattened themselves to the villa’s wall, looking up their rifle scopes at the roofline.

Scuffling, above. Frantic Arabic flew back and forth. Two, no three, voices.

Kris followed David, holding his weapon up, keeping it steady on the roofline.

Richard covered him, moving close.

Ryan slipped away from the villa’s walls, sliding into the courtyard.

“Hnak hu alan! Ha hu! Ha hu!” There he is now! There he is! There he is!

“Shit!” Bullets peppered the courtyard, the dirt at Ryan’s feet. He ran for the shadows, ducked behind a concrete pillar for cover. The shooter on the roof chased him to the edge.

David slid out of the shadows and squeezed his trigger. Three bullets spat into the night, catching the first man on the roof in the shoulder and jaw. He tumbled forward, limp, spilling over the edge. He hit the ground like a broken doll, head first. Kris looked away, flinching.

He’d remember that sound as long as he lived.

“Qafz! Qafz!” Jump! Jump!

Two men scurried across the roof, heading for the edge. David, Jackson, and Kris stepped over the broken body in the courtyard and followed the sounds. Behind the house, the closest neighbors were nine feet away, across a sewage-filled alley. An improbable jump, but not impossible. Not with adrenaline coursing through the men’s’ veins.

The first man on the roof started to run. They heard his feet slapping against the concrete. Heard him approach the edge. Saw him leap.

David and Jackson fired together, two shots. Both tore through the jumper. Shrieking, he fell to the ground, bones in his legs cracking on impact. He wailed, screams loud enough to wake the dead, knives that sliced through Kris’s eardrums.

The third man had jumped right after his friend, using the distraction to cover his attempt.

Kris saw him. He raised his weapon. Fired.

His shots caught the jumper in his hip and his stomach. He lurched, tumbled, and fell, slamming into the top of the privacy fence before sliding to the ground.

Inside the house, the frantic shouts from the FBI had subsided. They heard boots running up and down the stairs, heard calls of “clear” from within. Heard more boots on the roof, and shouts of “police!”

“Friendlies!” David bellowed. “Friendlies, down below!”

“We heard gunshots. What do have?” One of the FBI agents poked his head over the roof’s edge. He blanched when he saw the first man from the roof spread in a wet mess across the courtyard.

“Three jumpers. All down.” David and Jackson had formed a loose perimeter, keeping all three bodies in sight.

Kris called up, “Zahawi in there?”

“No. Is he one of them?”

“We’re checking.” Kris and Richard ignored the first body. There wasn’t anything left to ID. He didn’t have the right coloring for Abu Zahawi, either. The man who’d tumbled was Pakistani. Zahawi was Palestinian, fair skinned and slender according to the passport photo they were working with.

The second jumper was still shrieking. Blood pooled beneath one of his broken legs. White bone stuck out of his torn pants. Strips of skin clung to the jagged ends of his shattered femur. Richard shined a light into his face.

“Not him.” Kris waved to David. “This one needs a medic. He’s going to bleed out.”

They moved on to the third jumper as David knelt next to the broken-legged man. The third jumper was heavy set with a round belly, thick legs, and wild, springy hair, almost to his shoulders. He was clean shaven, almost as smooth as Kris. Blood smeared across him, from the shots in his belly and his impact with the fence, and his slide to the ground. Pools of ruby liquid formed beneath him, soaking the dirt. His eyes were closed and he didn’t move. Still, they kept their distance.

“This can’t be him.” Richard frowned.

“His jawline looks similar…” Kris reached for the man, turned his head left and right. The man groaned. “I think it’s him. I think it’s Zahawi.”

“How do we know?”

Kris turned the man’s head to the side again and held it still. “Take a picture of his ear. Everyone’s ear is unique. Just like a fingerprint.”

Richard arched an eyebrow at him, but snapped the photo. Kris pulled out his field laptop from his backpack and plugged in the camera. Downloaded the image, and sent it via satellite link to Islamabad. “We’ll know in a minute.”

Sirens blasted across Faisalabad, the Pakistani police coming out in force. Rickshaw ambulances followed behind the police. David, through with putting a tourniquet on the broken legged man, jogged over to Kris. “I thought this one was dead.”

“Not yet.” Kris grabbed his medical kit from his backpack and pulled out a wad of field dressings and gauze bandages. He pressed them into the man’s bullet wounds, over his stomach and his thigh. Blood saturated the dressings, soaking through almost instantly. “We need to keep him alive. This is Zahawi. I’m certain of it.”

His sat phone rang. Richard reached for it. David grabbed it first. “Hello?”

Where’s Caldera?”

“Holding pressure on a wounded Al Qaeda man.”

If it’s the same man who’s ear he just sent, then he’d better do everything he can to keep him breathing. That is Abu Zahawi. And we need him. Alive.”


Timestamp: Chapter 13, Whisper. After the Afghanistan War led by the CIA.

 

Check Yes or No – Jack’s POV before texting Ethan in EOTS

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! This week, Nichole asked for a prompt about Jack’s POV from when Ethan gave him his cell phone number until they started texting. What was going through Jack’s mind? Why did he decide to text Ethan? Great prompt! Thanks, Nichole!

Happy Reading!


 

Jack’s gaze darted to the folder, again.

 

It was just a plain manila folder, one of a dozen, buried beneath the classified intelligence pouch and his daily briefing binder. He’d tossed his tablet on top of the pile sometime after lunch, too. But he could still see the edge of the folder poking out from the bottom of the stack.

 

Mr. President, this is my personal cell phone number. I’ll be fired if anyone finds out I gave this to you. But I’m sorry for what happened at Camp David and I really wish I’d stayed and had that beer with you.

 

A part of him wanted to just shred the folder and Ethan’s phone number along with it. Ethan had been adamant, over and over again, that they weren’t supposed to connect. How awkward was he at the gym those first few days? And, that first weekend at Camp David, after their run?

 

Jack had always been able to take a hint. Ethan had been uncomfortable. Deeply, deeply uncomfortable.

 

But what then was this? If Ethan kept wanting to keep him at arm’s reach, then why reach back for Jack with his phone number? Why be regretful about their missed beer?

 

Was this pity? The poor lonely president, and Ethan was just taking one for the team? Someone had to befriend him before Jack went crazy in the big empty White House, and that someone was Ethan? Had they picked straws for the role of almost-friend of the president?

 

I’ll be fired if anyone finds out I gave this to you.

 

That didn’t sound like pity.

 

Was he a job? Just a job to Ethan, another president that, when it came down to it, needed special handling and kid gloves? So he didn’t throw tantrums and berate the staff, but was he demanding in other ways? Taking too much of Ethan’s personal time?

 

I really wish I’d stayed and had that beer with you.

 

Jack pitched back and sighed, closing his eyes. He was, for the moment, blessedly alone in his office, able to think, to breathe, for a half second. It was the only time he enjoyed the silence of the White House. Moments of peace in the Oval Office were exceedingly rare.

 

Light flitted through the gauze curtains of the Oval Office, dancing across his desk, his pants, his tie. Why had he ever thought running for president would be a good idea? Was pushing his agenda, his vision of a better world, worth it all? What if he’d stayed a Senator? Could he have just pitched bill after bill after bill, trying to legislate change through sweat and discourse?

 

Change started from the top. The president set the course of the nation. Everyone knew that. After too many failed policies, he’d wanted the chance to change the course of history and fate. The first Millennial president, they’d all said, and he wanted to bring the tectonic shift, the earthquake that would reshape politics and America. Weren’t the Millennials always mocked for forcing change onto the world? Well, baby, change is here.

 

Or so he’d thought, lying awake at nights on the campaign trail. Energized, enthused, excited. Dreaming of all that he could do.

 

And he was doing, by the benchmarks that measured a presidency. Bills were being passed. Approval ratings fluctuated din the upper forties to low fifties.

 

But, God, he was exhausted. And achingly, achingly alone at the end of every day. The loneliness teetered on the edge of a depression, a plunging cavern he could step off into, could disappear into. Was it normal that a president felt like he was a half-step from the edge? Did the others feel this way?

 

Other presidents had families, friends. People to help take their mind off the job. Jack felt that he was turning into the job, losing his sense of self, almost. Like he was swirling down the drain, never able to separate from the office, the role.

 

He’d tried to watch a movie in the White House theater once, all alone with his bucket of popcorn. He’d tried to get away from the world, for just an hour and a half. But he’d turned the movie off when the walls seemed to grow, stretching larger and larger until he felt he was disintegrating, disappearing. He was tiny in that room, all alone in the rows and rows of seats. What was he doing there?

 

He’d read another briefing instead.

 

The guys he’d roomed with on Capitol Hill had drifted as soon as he started his presidential run. They didn’t want the association, the drama. And, since the campaigns started so early, he hadn’t actually had that much time to get to know them, between late nights on the Hill, different committee assignments, and the punishing “be there” schedule of politics. You were always on duty, always on shift. “Be there”, or be voted out of office.

 

So was that why he was reaching out to Ethan so much? Ethan was gruff and stiff, almost as stiff as Welby, at least in the beginning. But he had a warm core, and a humanity that ran deep through him. Christmas, and he’d taken care of his fellow officers, staying in while they enjoyed time with their families. He’d worked out with Jack, when that wasn’t at all what he was supposed to do. And he kept working out, going for runs with him at Camp David, lifting weights in the mornings. It was the closest thing to normal human interaction he had, and the closest thing he’d had to friendship, in… years.

 

Except, Ethan was paid to throw his body in front of a bullet to protect Jack. How much an equal friendship was that, really?

 

Groaning, Jack tried to stop his swirling thoughts. He was pathetic. He was a middle-aged man, forty-five years old, and he was waxing poetic about wanting a friend. He was the president, for Christ’s sake. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He needed to get a grip.

 

I really wish I’d stayed and had that beer with you.

 

Damn it. Was it true? Was there any possible way… they could actually be friends? Did Ethan want anything to do with him? He wanted to kick himself for thinking the thought. Should he send Ethan a handwritten note down in Horsepower? Will you be my friend? Check yes or no.

 

Jack pulled out his phone and wiggled Ethan’s folder from the bottom of his pile. He punched Ethan’s digits into his phone. Stared at the screen. What on earth should he say? I think you’re super cool. You’re like a larger than life action hero. Lifting weights with you keeps me sane. Our friendship keeps the world safe. Everyone should thank you for your sacrifice. Want to come over and play? I’ll ask my mom if it’s alright.

 

He was pathetic.

 

Knocking rapped on his door just before Jeff Gottschalk burst in. Jack slipped Ethan’s note out of the folder and hid it in his lap, folding it until he could stuff it in his pocket.

 

“Mr. President, there’s a situation.” Jeff scowled. “We’re picking up Caliphate movement in Iraq. Looks like they’re moving against the northern province. Maybe trying to take another city.”

 

“Get everyone into the Situation Room. We’ve got to deal with this, and we’ve got to put an end to the Caliphate. I’m sick of them.”

 

“Agreed. I’ll have everyone assembled in fifteen minutes, Mr. President.” Jeff ducked out, already putting his cell phone to his ear and talking while emailing someone else on his Blackberry.

 

Jack’s shoulders slumped. His hopes for a quiet evening, and maybe, just maybe, texting Ethan, disappeared.

 

At least for tonight.

 

We’ll have that beer, Ethan. You deserve it, for putting up with me.

 

If they were going to be friends, then Jack had to start doing a better job of being one. He had to do more, for Ethan.

 


Timestamp: EOTS, Chapter 12, Jack’s POV

 

WHAT IF… Jack never ran for president?

 

Welcome back to Bauer’s Bytes, 2018!!

I love to kick off a new year of Bytes with something big, something monumental. Last year, I did Jack’s POV of Sochi, and this year, after bantering around with readers about the idea, I decided to write an alternate universe story. (I feel oddly like I’ve fan-fic’d my own work… 🙂 ) In this universe, Senator Jack Spiers decided NOT to run for president. He stayed in the Senate. How, then were Ethan and Jack supposed to meet? Well, here’s one possible way…

Try and spot the nods to EOTS, and the changes in the timeline. Everything that happened in EOTS happens here, or *tries* to happen. Jack not being president had a cascading array of consequences. See if you can spot them all!

Happy Reading, and welcome to 2018!

 


 

The United States Capitol Rotunda wasn’t made for parties, but that didn’t stop Congress from throwing down, when the time was right.

 

Champagne corks popped and echoed, mini canons of legislative victory. Representatives and Senators, staffers and aides, and, of course, the army of journalists, rubbed shoulders and celebrated, laughing, cheering, hugging, and toasting. Endlessly toasting.

 

Ethan stood at the edge of the Rotunda, holding up a thick marble column. The president was due to arrive in… sixteen minutes. He and Scott had battled for who led the advance team to the Capitol.

 

Ethan had lost.

 

On a giant projector screen over the Rotunda, Senator Jack Spiers’s celebratory victory speech played. Ethan watched with one eye, keeping a roving sweep on the rest of the party.

 

“This legislation celebrates the diversity of America, and America’s long, long history as being a nation of immigrants, of dreamers, of doers, and of people united in a commitment to forge a better way forward for themselves, their families, and for the world. America is more than just a place. More than just lines on a map, borders to be drawn and defined. America is a dream, a hunger. A desire to build a better future, and a better world. There are 330 million Americans today. But there are eight billion potential Americans. Anyone – no matter the color of their skin, the place of their birth, their religion, sex, gender, sexuality, identity, or education – has an opportunity to come to America. To dream of more.” Cheers rose, and applause.

 

“Immigration has long been a challenge for this great nation. There have been dark chapters in our history. Days where we turned away immigrants who sought freedom and safety. Times when America participated in the vile and reprehensible practice of slavery. Those days are gone forever. We will not turn away any human being fleeing the horrors of war, persecution, oppression, or terror. This nation will always and forever be a place of freedom, of safety, of security, and most of all, of hope.

 

“Government alone cannot solve the nation’s problems. We are delighted with this monumental tax cuts and immigration legislation, the America Dreams of the Future Act. Together, with commitments from nearly every major Fortune 500 company, and countless small business and family businesses, we as a nation have committed to providing education, language skills, job training, and technical skills training to both American citizens and to immigrants and refugees to not only succeed in this nation, but to thrive.”

 

The speech continued, and more cheers and applause thundered throughout the Capitol. Senator Spiers had first pitched the legislation over a year before, in the middle of the campaign season. Every candidate, in the primary and then in the general election, had taken a stand on Senator Spiers’s America Dreams of the Future Act. The bill had galvanized the nation, and had been an intense and heated battle on the Hill, consuming both parties. Spiers had persevered, through, getting first Democrats to co-sponsor, and then Republicans.

 

He’d carved a name for himself in American politics. The buzz that he should run for office, after Gutierrez’s four or eight years, was building. There were rumors, even, that he’d almost run against Gutierrez in the primary.

 

Quarterback, this is Grumpy. Leaving Castle and headed to the Punch Bowl. ETA is six minutes. How’s the party?”

 

“Loud. Didn’t know old people could get this rowdy.”

 

C’mon. You know Congress is the professional drinker’s club.”

 

Ethan snorted. “See you in five-forty-five, Grumpy.”

 

He pushed off his column, his silent companion in the madness, and strode across the Rotunda. He had to slide past laughing ladies and chortling old men, aides that obsessively refreshed their phones and the news feeds to see how their Senators and Representatives were trending after the legislation’s signing.

 

Someone screamed. Ethan spun, reaching for his waist. An older woman had her hand to her mouth, staring wide-eyed at a phone screen. A second later she laughed, squeezing her eyes shut.

 

Ethan cursed. Shaking his head, he turned-

 

“Whoa!”

 

“Shit!” Ethan grabbed a pair of flailing arms as he felt something wet drench his button-down, soak into his suit pants. A blur of blond and blue flashed before him. He stepped back.

 

Senator Jack Spiers, holding an empty red wine glass, stared at Ethan, his jaw hanging open. “I am so sorry,” he started. “I thought I could get past you. I’m so sorry. Please, let me replace your shirt, your suit.”

 

Ethan pasted his don’t fuck with me smile on his face. “No need, Mr. Senator. I’ll be all right.”

 

“Please.” Spiers reached for him, stilled his forward march through the crowd. “I insist. This is all my fault.”

 

Three minutes, fifty seconds. Ethan’s gaze darted from the entrance to Spiers and back. He needed to end this conversation. “Senator, it’s not a problem. Truly.”

 

“Whose staff are you on? Who do you work for? I’ll connect with them, we can hammer out the details. But I really insist.” Spiers looked apologetic, truly remorseful.

 

Three minutes, twenty-eight seconds. “I work for the Secret Service, Senator. And I have to go. Now.”

 

Spiers’s expression shifted. “I understand completely. What’s your name?”

 

“Agent Reichenbach, Senator. If you’ll excuse me.”

 

Spiers stepped back. “I’m sorry, Agent Reichenbach.”

 

Ethan gave him a tight, thin smile and marched off.

 

Scott wasted no time at all mocking him when he hopped out of the passenger door of the Beast at the Capitol steps. “What, did you get any in your mouth?”

 

“Shut up. Someone ran into me.”

 

“Is it animal house in there?”

 

“Congress gone wild.” Ethan rolled his eyes.

 

“Let’s just take POTUS home, then.”

 

“I wish.” Ethan reached for the Beast’s back seat door. The perimeter of agents was in place. “All set.”

 

President Juan Gutierrez slid out of the limo, gave Ethan a once over and an eyebrow raise, and smoothly moved on. Ethan nodded for Scott to take point with Gutierrez. “All agents, be advised, Gumdrop is entering Punch Bowl.”

 

Sighing, Ethan leaned back against the warm metal of the Beast. He heard the Capitol cheer, the roar of raucous applause as the president walked in. Heard the Capitol band play a quick riff of Hail to the Chief. This wasn’t official though. This was a celebration, the president enjoying time with Congress after a major bipartisan legislative victory. Some had thought that bipartisanship was dead and gone, a bygone figment of history’s imagination. But Senator Spiers had been committed to resurrecting its weary ghost.

 

And, apparently, the Senator like red wine, and lots of it. That had to have been a full glass. Ethan’s shoes were filled with wine. Every step squeaked. Outside, away from the noise, he could hear the squelch of the wine in his socks, feel the wetness. Perhaps he should have taken Spiers up on his offer for a new suit. This one was ruined for sure. He never had any luck getting red wine out of anything, which was why he didn’t drink it.

 

Oh well. Just another day in DC.

 


 

Agent Reichenbach?”

 

Ethan pushed the intercom on his desk phone down in Horsepower. “Yes?”

 

The Secret Service uniformed officer at the gate sounded a bit confused. “I have a Senator who says he’s here to see you, sir.”

 

A Senator? To see him? “You sure he has the right name?” Was there a Reichen-something or a Richten-someone up in the West Wing?

 

Yes sir. He says he’s here to see Special Agent Reichenbach. Says he has something for you.”

 

“Who the hell is it?”

 

Senator Jack Spiers, sir.”

 

Oh. Jesus, that had been two months ago. He’d thrown away the shirt and sent his suit to the dry cleaners, and they’d done all they could, but there was still a dark patch in the blue wool. “Okay, I think I know what this is. Yeah, send him over to the garage entrance.”

 

Scott, running through the squeal sheets and intel reports from the last forty-eight hours, snorted. “You getting secret admirers visiting you here now? Someone dropping off roses?”

 

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

 

“No one gives me roses.”

 

“Sucks to be a terrible lay.” Ethan badged out of Horsepower and headed for the garage as Scott called him an asshole, and full of himself to boot.

 

What the hell was the Senator doing? Ethan was certain Senator Spiers had forgotten all about their run-in before the night was over. Why should he have remembered? Ethan had spent the rest of the night hiding by the Beast until the president – buzzed – decided to call it a night and head back to the White House.

 

He waited in the garage, hands in his pockets, as a Mercedes made its cautious way down into the underground parking structure. The small SUV wound around the corner and down the straight away, flashing its headlights once. The window rolled down as it came to a stop next to Ethan.

 

“Hi.” Senator Spiers smiled from the driver’s seat. “Is it… okay to stop here?”

 

“Did you bring a bomb with you? We’ve got a hidden laser gun that will incinerate your vehicle on the spot if it senses any chemical residue.” Ethan took a comical step back.

 

Spiers went ghost white. “Uhh, no, of course not-”

 

“I’m kidding.” Ethan gripped Spiers’s door frame. “What can I do for you, Senator?”

 

Spiers grumbled, shaking his head and sending him a mirthful glare as he pulled an envelope out of the padfolio on his driver’s seat. “This is for you.”

 

“Senator, you really don’t have to-”

 

“Just take it, please? I’ve felt awful since I ran into you, and even worse once you told me who you were. Please, let me do something.”

 

“It’s just a suit.”

 

Spiers wagged the envelope toward the open window, shook it and jiggled it until Ethan finally reached in. Spiers pulled it back at the last moment.

 

Ethan’s jaw dropped.

 

“Kidding. Here.” Laughing, Spiers held it out again.

 

Ethan snatched the envelope and looked inside. His eyes boggled. “Sir, I cannot accept this.” He thrust it back into the car. “I can’t. You have to take this back, please.”

 

Spiers started rolling forward, inching his SUV away with Ethan practically hanging from the window. “I’m sorry, I’m late for a meeting at the Hill. I’ve got to go.” He grinned.

 

“Senator! I cannot take this. It’s way too much.”

 

“It’s the cost of a Hugo Boss suit, which, if I’m not mistaken, was the suit you were wearing, plus the cost of alterations, which I know all you Secret Service agents have to get in order to conceal your weapon under your jacket.” Spiers, thankfully, braked. He smiled. “I said I’d replace it. It’s dollar for dollar. It’s not hush money or anything.”

 

Ethan tried to laugh. Still, getting a thousand dollar gift certificate from a Senator felt… weird. “Senator…”

 

Spiers glared at him, looked down his nose and over his glasses, like a librarian. He raised one eyebrow.

 

“Thank you,” Ethan finally said. “You are far too kind.”

 

“Thank you for accepting. I’m so sorry I ruined your suit, Agent Reichenbach.” Spiers smiled.

 

Something twisted deep inside Ethan’s belly, shooting lower, into his hips, his legs. When a man smiled at him like that, he usually went in full speed ahead. His gaze danced over Spiers’s face, from his pink lips to his baby blue eyes, his cornsilk hair, his smile. A frisson danced down his spine, made a fist deep inside his gut.

 

He stepped back. “Senator.” Holding up the envelope, he nodded once. “Straight head, make a left, and then follow your way up the ramp.”

 

Spiers blinked. Was that surprise? Disappointment? A moment later, it was gone, replaced by the ubiquitous political smile plastered on the face of every politician who entered the White House. Spiers nodded, rolled up his window, and drove away.

 

Ethan watched his headlights snake out of the garage. The image of Spiers’s smile stayed, superimposed on his brain, until he dismantled it, piece by piece and ripped apart the curl of interest that had taken root at the base of his spine.

 

Senators were not for play, nor were straight men. Ever.

 


 

Senator Spiers’s office.” The perky voice on the end of the line sounded perfectly Texan, warm and friendly with a lulling accent. “How can we help you today?”

 

Ethan cleared his throat. “Uhh, I’d like to leave a voicemail for the Senator…. If that’s okay?”

 

Are you a constituent, sir?”

 

“No, I’m from the Secret Service.” It was a little shitty, using his position to gain access. But, most people in DC bent over backwards at the first mention of Secret Service, as if they had a blank check to operate anywhere they wanted. Or, the posh attitude of some who felt that if if the Secret Service acknowledged them, provided them with protection, then they had made it into the upper echelons of political power. Or they just knew whose back to scratch.

 

I’ll connect you right away, sir. Hold please.”

 

The phone rang. Ethan repeated what he wanted to say, his short, rehearsed thank you speech for the Senator’s voicemail. It was a Friday, and Congress mostly didn’t work on Fridays. He could get away with a short voicemail. Assuage his own guilty conscience for accepting such a huge gift.

 

Senator Spiers speaking.”

 

Shit. “Uhh, Mr. Senator. I didn’t expect you to pick up. I told your receptionist I wanted to leave a voicemail.”

 

Well, you’ve got me.” Spiers was smiling, he could tell. “To whom am I speaking?”

 

“Agent Reichenbach, sir.”

 

Agent Reichenbach! Good to hear from you!” Spiers sounded, honestly, happy. “How are you? Any problems with the gift certificate?”

 

“No, no sir, none at all. I uh, just wanted to thank you, again. I got a replacement suit, got it tailored, and it’s perfect. I’m wearing it today, actually. Thank you. Very much.”

 

I’m so glad.” Creaking leather, over the phone, like Spiers was leaning back in his chair. “That tailoring you guys get is pretty amazing. Most of the time, you can’t tell you guys are carrying.

 

“Well, sir, that’s the point. Sir, how did you know I was wearing Hugo Boss?”

 

Takes one to know one. I recognized the cut. I liked that you have style, Agent Reichenbach. And, of course, that also made me want to replace it even more. If you wore, say, a polyester suit, maybe I would have let you just throw that one away.”

 

Ethan laughed. What the hell was wrong with the world? Was a straight man lecturing him on fashion? “Sir, I wouldn’t be caught dead in a cheap polyester suit.”

 

Good man.” A pause. “So, what’s a Secret Service agent’s day like on a Friday?”

 

“Just making sure the mice will stay in line while the cat is away. I’m taking the weekend off. My first since before the election.”

 

Oh wow. You guys work so hard. And, you’re the cat, I presume?”

 

Was this a getting to know you conversation? Was that what this was? Damn it, he shouldn’t have called. He should have sent a note, or a carrier pigeon, or a smoke signal. Or nothing. He’d already said thank you. “I’m the special agent in charge. Detail lead for the presidential detail here at the White House.”

 

I sound like a broken record, but, wow. That’s incredible, Agent Reichenbach. And, of course, I feel even more vindicated that I replaced your suit.”

 

“Senator-”

 

Well, It’s just after four, and I’m about to get out of here for the day-”

 

“Yes sir, I’m sorry. I won’t keep you. Sorry for interrupting.”

 

Stop, no. Do you have any plans this evening? I’d love to buy you a drink if you’re free.”

 

His mouth went dry as his jaw dropped. What the hell was this? Was Senator Spiers really this friendly? His reputation was solid gold, but Ethan had no experience with him as a man. Was this gregariousness, this friendliness, real? He was a politician, so the chances were it was a complete and total act, everything was fraudulent, and in two years, he’d be marched out of the Capitol in handcuffs after a freezer full of cash was raided by the FBI. And maybe a dead stripper as well.

 

Spiers’s smile, the same one he’d demolished and banished, appeared before him in his mind. Ethan closed his eyes. His plans had been to go home and drink beer until he fell asleep in front of the TV, then spend Saturday being a lazy bastard before going to the clubs and finding someone to screw through his mattress four or five times through the night. Bloody Marys on Sunday, laundry, and then back to work Monday morning.

 

Having a drink with a far-too-attractive Senator was not on his to-do list.

 

Were there rules about this? There were a thousand rules in the Secret Service, and a good hundred or so of them were about relations with protectees. But Spiers wasn’t a protectee. He was nothing to Ethan, or to the Secret Service. There was no guidance for this. Damn it.

 

What was the harm? Maybe it would do him some good to expand his social circle. Get to know someone other than his coworkers and the men he picked up, and then generally never saw again.

 

“Sure. Where?” Even to him, his voice sounded strangled, like he’d just agreed to rob a bank or eat live anchovies. But where would Spiers pick? … What if he chose a gay bar? What if-

 

Meet in the middle? Penn Social?

 

Okay, that was definitely a straight bar. “Sure. What time?”

 

I’m closing up here. I’ll be there in about forty five minutes. Come anytime! See you soon, Agent Reichenbach!”

 

Ethan hung up and scrubbed his face with his hands, dug the heels of his palms into his eyes. What the fuck was he doing?

 


 

Drinks with Spiers was a fucking awful idea.

 

Spiers was awesome. He wasn’t fake at all. He was gregarious, and he was funny, and he was friendly. He wanted to know about Ethan’s job and what he loved about it, wanted to hear funny stories – only the ones he could share, of course – and wanted to hear about what Ethan did in DC for fun. He laughed at almost everything Ethan said, smiled all the rest of the time.

 

His smile was gorgeous. Damn it, it really was. The more Spiers smiled, the more Ethan wanted to make him smile. The more Spiers laughed, the more laughter Ethan wanted.

 

He demurred on politics, begging out of that conversation. “I’m no good at politics. I just protect politicians. That’s all. I don’t pretend to know anything.”

 

“You’re very intelligent. I know you’re better than you give yourself credit for.”

 

Ethan flushed. Changed the subject. “All right, What about you? You’ve been here six years. Your freshman term is under your belt. And you spent a big chunk of that working on your signature legislation. Have you gotten away from the Capitol at all?”

 

“No, not really.” Spiers, again, laughed. “It’s sad. Six years as a Senator and I’ve barely seen the whole Mall. Haven’t been to any of the Smithsonians. Or the hundred other awesome museums and galleries around the city.”

 

“You’re missing out. The Mall is great. Especially in spring.” Spring, and summer, when people started sunbathing and men jogged shirtless, wearing tiny running shorts or skin-tight leggings. When the weather warmed up, and the clothes came off. “Smithsonians are all wonderful. Everyone knows about the Air and Space museum, but the galleries are great, too. And the American History Museum.”

 

“I will check them out, for sure.”

 

Want to go next weekend? I’ll pick you up. Dinner after? Drinks? Ethan clamped his lips shut. He spun his beer on the bartop. Stared at Spiers, soaked in his effortless smile. Spiers sat at the bar, but he’d turned to face Ethan, standing beside him. It was like they were the only ones in the whole place, despite the Friday night crowds and the buzz and din of conversation and laughter. All Ethan could see was Spiers.

 

Spiers finished his bourbon on the rocks and signaled for another. “So, Ethan. Do you golf?”

 


 

Ethan kicked his own ass the next afternoon, driving with a set of brand new clubs to the Potomac at Avenal Farms Golf Club, just outside DC. “You’re a dumbass, Ethan. You’re a fucking dumbass. Don’t do this. Don’t fall for his smile. Don’t fall for his friendliness. Go back to what you know. Remember the plan.”

 

Spiers had put his name on the list at the country club’s gated entrance, and Ethan was waved in and given directions to the clubhouse. He wound through manicured lawns and palatial mansions, yards with rose bushes that looked like they should be on magazine covers. The air was too expensive for him to breathe, with his law enforcement civil service salary. He didn’t even make six figures. His older Ford SUV stood out like a country bumpkin mobile, next to the Porsches and Mercedes.

 

He found Spiers sitting in the open trunk of his Mercedes SUV, golf clubs beside him. And, damn it, Spiers looked good. Late April, and the weather was warm enough for khaki shorts and polos, the prep uniform of upper crust men from the east coast. Ethan had gone with tapered leg ivory casual pants and a blue sweater. He hated himself as he did it, but the blue sweater had reminded him of Spiers’s eyes, and he was helpless against that. Plus, it looked great across his shoulders. Not that Spiers was looking. Damn it.

 

“Afternoon, Senator.”

 

Spiers snorted, shook his head. “I told you, call me Jack. Senator is way too formal. I feel like I’m being interviewed on CNN.”

 

But Senator was a shield, a reminder to Ethan that he couldn’t engage, couldn’t flirt. Shouldn’t even be there, that moment, unloading his brand new golf clubs. He avoided the request. “You live around here?”

 

Spiers laughed. “God, no! This is where the lobbyists live. People who make the big bucks. I live in DC.”

 

“Me too. Foggy Bottom. I’ve got a small unit.” He had a two bedroom that he’d poured his free time and his spare salary into, turning a modest place into a stylistic bachelor pad any modern urban gay would kill for. More than once, he’d brought home someone who liked his place better than they liked him. The feeling had been mutual.

 

“Me and three other Congressional reps rent a home in Capitol Hill.” Spiers led him through the clubhouse and the check-in process, chatting as they grabbed a golf cart and started to head out to the first hole. “It’s normal for the junior members, and anyone not in the multi-millionaires’ club, to share houses.”

 

“Really?” Ethan stared as Spiers parked them at the first hole.

 

“Oh yeah. I mean, what other options are there? We all have homes in our states or districts. We have to fly back and forth multiple times a month, if we’re good representatives of the people. Most everyone has a family. So that’s two households to support, plus tons of travel. And DC is expensive. Only the multi millionaires in Congress can afford two – or more – mortgages. The rest end up renting together. Some guys sleep in their office and don’t get a place in DC.” He lined up for his first swing.

 

“Who do you live with?”

 

Spiers rattled off the names of three junior Democrats, two Representatives and one Senator. He squinted, watching his ball sail through the air in a straight line down the green, almost perfectly to the hole. “I couldn’t find any Republicans I actually wanted to spend any time with.” Spiers shrugged. “The party has been in flux for a while.”

 

“So why are you a Republican, then?” Ethan lined up for his shot, stomach knotting. Spiers was a much better golfer than he’d led Ethan to believe. ‘Knocking around a few balls’ and ‘getting out in the sun’ didn’t shoot almost holes in one.

 

He was going to embarrass himself.

 

“I wanted to try and make a difference.” Spiers shrugged. “Isn’t that what they all say? But I wanted to be a new wave of Republicans. Us millennials, you know.” Spiers winked. “We have brand new ideas for the world. Or that’s what they say.”

 

Ethan swung, slamming his ball down the drive. “But you’re still a young man in Congress.” Ethan’s ball went wide, way, way wide. He cringed. “Those boomers still have a chokehold on the place.”

 

“Yeah, they do.” Spiers watched his ball disappear into the rough. He grinned. “Guess we’ve got a hike!”

 


 

Ethan lost, embarrassingly. But Spiers – Jack – was a good sport and he offered to buy Ethan dinner to make up for it.

 

Who was Ethan to say no?

 

They ate at the club, downing steaks and vodka Martinis, sharing DC gossip and beltway rumors. Spiers – Jack – started in on the hilarious misadventures of the Capitol, and Ethan nearly hurt himself laughing so hard.

 

A band started up on the patio, an eighties cover band – God, was that almost classic music now? – and it seemed stupid to leave when the evening was going so well. Thoughts of heading to a club, finding someone, going home with them and screwing until dawn, started to fade further and further away.

 

Between the two of them, they put away a bottle of wine and stayed until the band’s last set. Spiers – Jack, God damnit – finally called it quits during a Journey cover just after eleven.

 

Ethan walked him to his car. Jack was all smiles and laughter, even after a full day out, and he thanked Ethan for going golfing and staying for dinner as if Ethan had made some huge sacrifice to spend so much time in Jack’s orbit.

 

“I had a really great time, Sena- Jack.” Ethan caught himself. Part of him died inside. “Even though I really suck at golf. Especially next to you. But, thank you for inviting me. This was great.”

 

“We’ll have to do this again.”

 

“Or go to the Smithsonian.” Damn it. Ethan wanted to rewind time, smack himself before he spoke. Staple his lips together. He shrugged. “I mean, since you want to.”

 

“Yes! Totally. You can show me your favorite galleries. There are so many.”

 

Fuck. He was so fucked. “Sure.” It’s a date. “You’re on.”

 

Normally, he’d be leaning in and going for suave, smooth, the slick seduction of a hand on a man’s hip, his thumb stroking skin, a hipbone. His lips hovering above another’s, fingers grazing another man’s five o’clock shadow. He always held his lover’s gaze until his lover’s eyes closed right before they kissed. This was the moment, the exact moment, when he’d try to turn everything, go for a one night grand slam… if he knew the guy he was with was gay.

 

Jack smiled, waved, and hopped into his Mercedes. “Have a great Sunday, Ethan!”

 

Ethan watched him drive off, berating himself a thousand different ways.

 


 

One trip to the Smithsonian turned into two, which turned into five.

 

Jack invited him to a Nationals baseball game, and then another.

 

At some point, Jack started texting him, above and beyond the basic get together logistics.

 

Hope you’re having a better day than I am.

 

[Uh oh. What happened?]

 

Committee meetings. So fing awful, especially when some senators use it for grandstanding. Someone’s belabouring their point. Beating a dead horse.

 

[Gotta love Congress.]

 

Even I give us a negative ten approval rating.

 

[LOL]

 

What are you up to this weekend?

 

[POTUS wants to head up to Camp David before the G7 summit. Take a short weekend vaca. Planning the logistics for that and reviewing G7 intel.]

 

You’re going to be gone this weekend, next week, and next weekend too, right?

 

Ethan’s heart beat faster. Was this a test? Did Jack not want him gone that long? It wasn’t like they spent every weekend together, or saw each other every week. Okay, well, maybe they did. He started counting the days, adding up the times they hung out. He refused to call them dates, flat out refused.

 

Yeah, all right, they spent a lot of time together. At least once every week.

 

[I don’t have to go to Camp David. I wasn’t planning on it.]

 

Lies. He’d been definitely planning on it. Camp David was great. But spending some time with Jack was even greater. He was so fucked. So epically fucked.

 

We were going to have a little get together at the house this weekend. BBQ, hang out. Wanna come over? It’s completely casual. Just want to be outside and enjoy the weather.

 

[I love BBQ. 🙂 ]

 

Great! 🙂

 

[Can I bring something?] Flowers, chocolate, his sanity in a box? A key to Ethan’s heart? Something ridiculous to show Jack just how utterly and completely ridiculous he truly was?

 

Some beer and yourself! 🙂 Looking forward to it!

 


 

He fretted way too much over what to wear. What did two Senators and two Representatives wear on the weekend? Jack looked like a walking Calvin Klein advertisement every time they met up. Boat shoes and tailored shorts, slim fit polos, linen button-downs that didn’t look ridiculous, summer suits in lighter fabric. Ethan was a hip gay, and he’d always prided himself on looking his best, but his best was usually his suits or clubwear. He was woefully short on casual straight dude chill clothes. In the end, he went for his golf outfit, and swore he’d buy new clothes.

 

Jack and his Congressional roommates lived in one of best streets in Capitol HIll, in an older Victorian that had been renovated and modernized. Stately gray on the outside, the inside was gleaming hardwood, wainscoting, and plush throw rugs. But, it was still a bachelor pad. Two bikes and a skateboard leaned against the wall of the dining room. The dining room table was piled with his papers, reports, legal pads, and laptops. Notes to the rest of the roommates were tacked around the house. Keep the thermostat set at 75, no exceptions. Leave the washer lid OPEN after washing. Move your clothes immediately, or they will be left in the spare basket. Absolutely no microwaving of fish. Ever. You burn the popcorn, you clean the kitchen. All of it.

 

Congressmen Shafer answered when Ethan knocked. He blinked twice, seemed shocked, and then cried, “Oh! You must be Jack’s friend!” He turned and, in true frat fashion, hollered at the top of his lungs into the house, “Jack!”

 

From up the polished wood stairs, snaking up two levels of the townhome, Ethan heard “What?”

 

“Your friend is here!”

 

Jack’s voice appeared clearer and Ethan saw his head appear over the banister, two floors up. “Ethan! Be right down.”

 

Jack thundered down the stairs a moment later, freshly showered and smelling utterly fucking divine. Ethan locked his knees, forced himself to stay upright as Jack beamed at him. That smile was deadly, fucking deadly.

 

He got the nickel tour, dropped his beer in the fridge, and met Congressmen Shafer and Watts, and Senator Karthi. Karthi had invited his girlfriend over, as had Watts. Shafer was single, “happily, happily single,” he said, pushing off Karthi’s offer to hook him up.

 

No one asked Jack about a girlfriend. Everyone knew his story. CNN specials had been aired about him, and about his deceased hero wife.

 

Wife. Wife.

 

Ethan was fair game, though, and Shafer started in on quizzing Ethan as Jack and Watts worked the grill. What did he do? How was the White House? Could he dish on the administration? What did he do for fun? Was he seeing anyone?

 

“No, I’m single, too.” Ethan couldn’t drink his beer fast enough. He caught Jack’s eye. Jack smiled. Ethan’s heart skipped a beat.

 

“Happily single?” Shafer held out his beer for Ethan to toast, if he agreed.

 

He shook his head. “No, just single.”

 

If Jack ever gave him an opening, ever gave him a hint, a suggestion that there was even the possibility of more… he’d be the happiest man on the planet.

 

Until then, he was the dumbest. Because Jack was straight. And Ethan knew this.

 

But his heart still ached, and his days had long since started to revolve around Senator Jack Spiers.

 


 

The G7 was uneventful. He spent most of his time obsessively checking his phone, enough so that Scott and Daniels both called him out on it.

 

“Are you picking up ass here?” Scott had seemed both impressed and mortified. “I’m not sure how I feel about you banging another country’s presidential detail.”

 

Ethan kept his mouth shut about the UN General Assembly meeting six years before. He’d gone international relations with Israel and South Korea. Members of their country’s security delegation were wonderful people, and extremely vocal in bed. “No, I’m not picking anyone up.”

 

“Checking on your boo back home?” Daniels had a knowing glint in his eyes. “It’s that early time, right? When you can’t get each other out your mind?”

 

Ethan shoved his phone in his pants and glowered at them both. “None of your fucking business.”

 

“Oooo.” Scott and Daniels shared a scandalized look. “It might be serious, Daniels.”

 

“Yeah, cause when it’s not, he’s usually telling us all about it.” Daniels winked and laughed, almost spraining something when Ethan just kept glaring at them both.

 

It was all worth it, though, for the feeling he got when he woke up to Jack’s text. Hope you’re having a good time and everything’s going smoothly. Thought of you today.

 

God, what he wanted to text back! Thought of you too. I think of you all the time. I can’t get you out of my mind. Send me a picture of you smiling? I want to use it as my phone background. Do you remember the songs from 2004? I think of you when I hear them.

 

He didn’t say any of that. [Going good. Looking forward to coming home.]

 

Scott, Daniels, Ethan, and Harry went out to dinner when they got back, as per a tradition that Ethan had started sometime and insisted they keep up. His friends at the Secret Service were his only close friends, up until Jack quite literally crashed into his life.

 

Of course, Scott got going on who his mysterious texter was, and Daniels started egging Scott on, pushing him to push Ethan even harder. They started guessing, wild guesses over who Ethan’s paramour might be as Ethan downed his beer and stared across the restaurant, pouting.

 

“To get you this worked up, he has to be something crazy. Totally fucking nuts.” Scott started bringing his guessing back down to planet Earth sometime after his second scotch. “So it’s not a twink or a young college kid.” He squinted. “An athlete? Or an actor? Someone who can’t come out?”

 

That was a decent guess, and Ethan loved Scott for thinking of that. He shook his head.

 

Scott’s eyes narrowed. “Someone in this town?”

 

Oh shit.

 

Daniels leaned forward. “I thought you said you’d never date anyone in politics?”

 

Ethan squirmed. His neck flushed, damn it. He could feel the heat rising beneath his collar.

 

“Someone in politics…” Scott shook his head. “I cannot believe you. You have a literal front row seat to the worst politics in the world, and you go and fall for one of those scumbags?”

 

“He’s not like that. He’s different.”

 

“Ah ha! So it’s true!”

 

Ethan groaned. “He’s… genuine, and kind, and smart, and funny. He cares. He really does. He’s trying to make things better.”

 

“Oh my fucking God. You’ve drank the Kool Aid. Does it come out of his dick? Is that how you’re getting it?”

 

Ethan threw his napkin across the table at Scott. “We’re not sleeping together.”

 

Both Scott and Daniels froze. Their gazes met, held. Their heads swiveled to Ethan. Incredulity drowned the table, doubt like an ocean wave that hit him hard. “Yeah, right. Not with how you’re acting, Romeo.”

 

“We’re not. He’s…” Ethan wilted. Sighing, he propped his elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands. He knew the truth. But saying it out loud just made him feel beyond lame. “He’s straight.”

 

“What?”

 

“I said, he’s straight.” Ethan folded his arms, pursed his lips. “He’s not interested. I’m being fucking stupid.”

 

Daniels had the decency to look contrite. Scott threw his head back and howled. “Jesus, Ethan. You finally fall for someone and he’s not into you at all. That’s poetic, right there.”

 

“Asshole.”

 

Scott chuckled and shook his head. “I’m sorry, man. But even you have to admit. That is irony.”

 

“Man, stop.” Daniels clucked at Scott. Shook his head. He jerked his chin to Ethan. “It’s all right. The right man will come along for you, and he’ll be everything you need. It’ll happen out of the blue. You won’t even know it’s coming, just, bam! That’s why I don’t look for my future wife. I know when it’s meant to happen, it will happen.”

 

Ethan tried to let Daniels’s words comfort him.

 

But the right man had already arrived, had already appeared out of the blue with a bam, and he was everything Ethan craved.

 

Except… Jack wasn’t into Ethan at all.

 


 

It was Jack’s turn to go workaholic next. Congress spun up after a NATO patrol in the Mediterranean found a cargo ship filled to the brim with weapons and material meant for terrorists hiding in Europe. The weapons were listed as supplies for the refugee resettlements from the Middle East in Europe, and that just hit all the political hot buttons.

 

Jack appeared on CNN and other news shows, counseling restraint and urging people to put their faith and trust in the security apparatus of the United States and her NATO allies. They were going to get to the bottom of what had happened. They were going to keep everyone safe. There was no need to panic, no need to scrap the immigration laws or restrict refugees coming into the United States.

 

President Gutierrez called for an emergency NATO meeting to discuss the ongoing security situation and potential threats. Ethan worked closely with the presidential travel team and the planning staff to coordinate security arrangements in Prague. Every few hours, he’d see Jack on CNN again, playing in the background of the White House and the West Wing, everywhere he looked.

 

[You look great on TV. You sound great.]

 

Thanks! It’s been a looooooong few days. I’m trying to stop the hysterics of people who want to demolish the immigration bill, or scrap refugees altogether. Or who want to outright ban Syrian immigrants.

 

[That’s a nightmare. But you made really good points. Thought you demolished any argument for going to the extremes really well.]

 

Thought you didn’t get involved in politics? 🙂 Didn’t like it?

 

[I do now, because of you. I’m learning more. Someone keeps bringing it up. 🙂 ]

 

🙂

You going to the NATO summit the president called?

 

[Yeah.]  Would it be too much to say I wish you could come with me? Yes. Yes it would. [Have you ever been?]

 

No. Heard it’s awesome. Take some pictures for me!

 

[Will do.]  He hesitated, tapping his phone against his palm at least two dozen times. [Want to grab a drink before I go?]

 

Definitely!

 


 

He tossed and turned the entire flight to Prague on Air Force One. He hadn’t slept the night before, or the night before that. Thoughts of Jack consumed his mind, his every moment.

 

What was this? They texted every day. Jack asked him to drinks, to dinner, to ball games, to BBQs, to museums, to the National Mall, out on hikes, to golf. He seemed to want to be around Ethan, connect with him. If Jack were gay, or bi, he’d know that Jack wanted him. That Jack wanted to be with him. It would be obvious.

 

But when they were together, Jack didn’t seem to want to push anything further. No lingering looks, no flirtation, no careless hands left on shoulders or skin. Jack barely touched him, even. Never once had he checked Ethan out. He’d never picked up on Ethan’s extremely subtle offerings for flirtation, for delicate banter back and forth.

 

So, Jack wanted Ethan, but as what? A friend? A buddy? Someone to do things with?

 

How much longer could he go on like that? How much longer could he keep this longing under wraps? His fantasies were becoming outrageous, his make believe scenarios of Jack professing his hidden gayness, his animalistic desire for Ethan. In his mind, Jack wilted in Ethan’s arms like an old black and white movie and begged to be taken. Ethan carried him up the stairs in his shared house, kicked open his bedroom door. Ethan had never seen Jack’s bedroom, but he imagined it. Dreamt it, every night, as he dreamt making love to Jack.

 

Waking up with wet boxers and cum-stained sheets was getting old. As was the self deprecation, the self flagellation. The anguished wonder. One day, would Jack-

 

He couldn’t keep going like this. He just couldn’t.

 

While NATO met, Russia was on the move. President Puchkov had made back channel overtures to the US, according to Jack, and wanted to be invited to the NATO summit to contribute. Gutierrez balked, absolutely refusing to engage with the Russians in any way. In response, Puchkov sent an army division to the border on routine exercises, scaring the living shit out of Eastern Europe, and Russian fighters buzzed American surveillance planes in the Middle East for the entire summit. Gutierrez was haggard, worn, and exhausted by the end.

 

Jack kept up a running commentary for Ethan, translating things Ethan saw or heard, political ramifications of seemingly pointless foreign interactions, and on the ground happenings back in DC.

 

Gutierrez should have invited Puchkov. It was an overture, and since Putin’s outsing, we’ve needed more honest engagement with Russia. With whatever they’re going to become, now that Putin has been forced out.

 

[I can see why people say you should run for president, you know.]

 

Oh stop.

 

[You have a broad worldview. You can see the bigger picture, the larger consequences. Not just of one action, but of so many actions, all happening together. POTUS didn’t think about Puchkov making an overture, or the future of Russia. He just thought Russia wasn’t NATO, Russia was against us in Syria, and that’s that.]

 

Gutierrez wasn’t my first choice in the primary. 🙂

 

[I heard you almost ran?]

 

I thought about it.

 

[Why didn’t you? I keep thinking about what it would be like if you were here.] Ethan pressed his lips together after he sent his message. Depending on how it was read, it was exactly what Ethan meant.

 

I had a choice. I could focus on my immigration bill or I could run for president. I couldn’t do both. If I ran, then I’d have lost the bill. It needed serious shepherding through Congress.

 

[But you could have passed that as president, too.]

 

I could have. But there was no guarantee I’d get through the primary, or the general. My party hasn’t been awesome for a while. If I’m going to change that, I wanted something to actually show for it.

 

[You ever wish there were more than the two parties?]

 

Every day. 🙂

 

He typed, When we get back, can we talk? And then deleted it, character by character.

 

You hanging in there? I bet these trips are second nature to you by now. I’m not sure I have the stamina.

 

[Yes you do. You’d be a great president.]

 

🙂

 

[I mean it. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot.]

 

I like my privacy. Though, it’d be pretty cool  to work with you!

 

An Arctic blast slammed into Ethan, like being dumped into the water beneath the north pole. If Jack were president – that moment, in another universe, in the future, sometime, somewhere – he’d never, ever get to befriend him. Never, ever be able to connect with him, in any way. Never get to know him, get to text him. Never get to see him smile, not the way Ethan craved. Not like it was meant for him and him alone.

 

A part of his soul shriveled. He was alone in his hotel room, lying in bed and texting Jack like a lovesick idiot. Like a demented gay, lusting and longing for someone who wouldn’t ever want him back.

 

Ethan set his phone down on the nightstand, face down, and rolled away.

 


 

He lasted fourteen hours before he checked his messages again.

 

When do you get back? My congressional roomies are out of town next weekend. If you’re free, we could grill. Catch a game. Unwind from this month.

 

Fuck. He wanted to unwind by stripping Jack, kissing his way up and down Jack’s body, suck him until Jack blew, deep in his throat. Flip him over, eat his ass until Jack screamed, and then make love to him until the sun rose and set again. He wanted everything, fucking everything.

 

And Jack wanted to eat burgers and watch baseball.

 

He had to stop this.

 

He’d tell Jack, tell him he couldn’t keep doing this. That he needed a break for his sanity. That he’d gone and broken the one cardinal rule of falling in gay love. Never, ever fall for a straight.

 

[Yeah, I’m free. I’ll be there. Hey, there’s something I want to talk to you about, too.]

 


 

He was a nervous wreck all week, peaking Friday, followed by depression Saturday morning. He was going to ruin everything. Jack would throw him out. He’d never see Jack again. He was going to ruin their friendship completely. Should he just not say anything? Could he deal with this on his own? Maybe he should just go fuck someone, pick someone up in DC and force Jack out of his mind.

 

He didn’t want anyone else. No one online compared. No one’s smile looked the same as Jack’s. Pictures of cock and ass did nothing. It was just a parade of not-Jack, a slideshow of all the men that weren’t the one he wanted.

 

Finally, he headed over to Jack’s.

 

The grill was already on when he arrived and Jack was slicing tomatoes and onions in the big kitchen at the granite island. He had a cold beer ready for Ethan, waiting. “Make yourself at home!”

 

They bullshitted and bitched about DC, about the Capitol, about the White House and Gutierrez. His poll numbers were sinking, tensions were rising, and Russia was being belligerent again.

 

“I swear, with the Russians, it’s like if you don’t give them the attention they want, they act out to get it. Gutierrez missed his opportunity to set a new tone with Puchkov. He could have signalled that we wanted to deal with the Russians on the level. Start a new tone of respect, with a brand-new leader. Who knows what we could have accomplished?”

 

“You should run for president, Jack. You really should.”

 

Jack just smiled. “Maybe. One day. Oh, can you get me another beer?” He had his hands full, shredding lettuce and shucking corn. The island was a mess.

 

Ethan grabbed a beer and popped the top. It was a Texas brew, a dark lager. He’d grown fond of it, thanks to Jack, and kept it in his own fridge, too.

 

“Oh, you said you wanted to talk?”

 

Ethan closed his eyes. Faced the fridge and tried to steel his nerves. Dread filled him, thundered through him. There’s no going back if you do this. What if you lose everything?

 

He turned. He’d prepared a speech, something short and to the point. I’m gay. I’ve fallen for you, a bit, but it’s okay. I’ve got it under control. I just want you to know why I’ll be keeping quiet for a while. I need to get you out of my head. You’re so beautiful. I need some space to forget that. His speech went off the rails quickly.

 

Jack looked up. Met his gaze. Smiled.

 

Everything he’d prepared fled. Every thought. Every intention. Jack stood in his kitchen, in shorts and a polo, shucking corn as the summer sun flitted through the kitchen window, catching rays of gold and the first hints of silver in his hair. Had his eyes ever been that shade of ocean blue? Had his smile ever looked so warm, so perfect? Had Ethan’s knees ever truly buckled, like they were about to?

 

He crossed the kitchen and set the beer down in front of Jack. Kept his gaze locked on Jack’s. Jack didn’t say a word, just watched Ethan, still smiling. Trusting Ethan.

 

Slowly, Ethan reached for him, cradling his face. His palms cupped Jack’s jaw, his cheeks. The first hint of confusion slipped into Jack’s eyes.

 

No, that wasn’t good. But what should he say? What could he say?

 

He’d never been good with words.

 

Ethan leaned in, capturing Jack’s lips with his own. He pressed them together, holding Jack’s face as he nuzzled, as he suckled, as he made love to Jack’s lips, kissing him the way he’d fantasized about for months. He dreamt of kissing Jack, had woken up kissing the air and breathing Jack’s name. He’d imagined their first kiss a hundred thousand times-

 

A hand pressed against the center of his chest, pushing him back.

 

Never, not once in those hundred thousand imaginings, did Jack push him away.

 

Ethan flew backward, retreating to the far side of the island. He faced the fridge, grabbed the edges of the door. Leaned forward, and begged for the ground to open, to swallow him whole. For lighting to strike him that instant.

 

“Ethan…” Jack’s voice was shaky. Ethan closed his eyes, squeezed them shut. “Ethan… Are you… gay?”

 

He twisted, looking at Jack over his shoulder. Jack had gone bone white. His eyes were wide, stricken, like he was looking at some horrible tragedy. His hands hovered in mid air, empty, lost.

 

“Yes.”

 

“Was that what you wanted to talk about?” Jack’s voice was thin, almost strangled.

 

“I think I’m in love with you,” Ethan breathed. I know I’m in love with you. “I-” He couldn’t speak. Not anymore.

 

Jack’s gaze skittered away, to the corner of the kitchen. He blinked, turned away. “Ethan…”

 

He didn’t need to hear anymore. Didn’t need to hear Jack’s stutter, his stumbles. Didn’t need to hear him fluster and fumble through turning Ethan down.

 

It was only ever going to end this way, exactly this way.

 

“Don’t,” he growled. “Just don’t. I already know. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.”

 

He stormed out, and Jack didn’t try to stop him.

 


 

Their texting stopped.

 

Jack never reached out, after. Never asked him out for a drink, or told him it was fine, he understood, they could move past it. The Nationals played two back-to-back series at home. Ethan couldn’t make himself watch. He just heard Jack’s aggressive play calling, the ghost of his laugh.

 

His new golf clubs, that he’d bought to go golfing with Jack, gathered dust.

 

Scott noticed, as did Daniels. Scott tried to distract him with work. Daniels offered to go out with him to the gayborhood again. He couldn’t muster the enthusiasm and told Daniels some other time.

 

DC summers were long, the days interminably hot and everlasting. Ethan’s hours crept by at the White House. He’d catch Jack on CNN at odd hours, saw his gaze peek out from monitors and TV screens as he made his way through the West Wing. Heard his voice on the radio, driving home.

 

He started walking the National Mall, always walking away from the Capitol toward the Lincoln Memorial. He didn’t want to see the Capitol building.

 

He replayed that afternoon a million times in his mind. What he’d done, and how wrong he’d been. How stupid, how rude. He’d lost his mind, completely. Of course Jack didn’t want anything to do with him. Of course.

 

He drank Jack’s Texas beer slowly, savoring the taste, the memories. Each beer was a goodbye as he packaged the months they’d spent together into a tiny box and buried it, deep in his heart. When he was done with the beer, he’d be done with Jack. For good.

 

He drank the last beer on August 1st. He could only get through half before he poured himself into bed and let his misery wash over him again.

 


 

His phone woke him at three in the morning, ringing shrilly on his nightstand.

 

Sir, we’ve had a situation. There’s been a nuclear detonation in Nairobi, Kenya.”

 

He set a land speed record getting to the White House. Once there, he went into full alert, shutting down the White House and instituting the highest levels of protections. Gutierrez locked himself in the Situation Room and ordered the military to respond. Kenya wasn’t there to give the go ahead to the troops, but Gutierrez pushed ahead anyway. American forces invaded Kenya hours after the blast.

 

He saw Jack on CNN again, calling for aid to be given to Kenya, and to the stricken Nairobi region. He championed a gigantic multinational aid package and drummed up significant private sector donations and technical support for recovery and rebuilding as well. Ethan’s heart ached, seeing Jack on screen again and seeing him in his element. Working for the world. Making things better. He wanted to text him, so badly. Tell Jack that he should be president. That he needed to be president. That the world needed him.

 

He won’t run if he thinks you’re going to be in the White House.

 

Maybe he should transfer. Get away from the White House and let Jack make his run.

 

It would be best for everyone.

 


 

Gutierrez refused to travel after the nuclear attack, canceling all foreign trips. He hunkered down in the White House. Russia and China stepped into the void, promising aid and international assistance and political support where the US had fallen short in Kenya. Even with all of Jack’s efforts, the president had set the tone for the American response to the nuclear attack, and he’d turned the country into a paranoid, cautious place.

 

Russia still took every chance she could to be belligerent, and Puchkov took great delight in stymieing the US in the Middle East. He foiled their efforts in Syria, interfered in Iraq.

 

One day, a delegation from Iraq, made up of Kurdish fighters, arrived at the White House on a guided tour from the Pentagon.

 


 

 

Breaking News

White House Attacked – Shots Fired Within House

Secret Service Fights Back and Retakes West Wing

The White House came under attack by unknown assailants  who gained entry to the West Wing posing as foreign military officers on an official visit. The attackers were able to gain access to the Secret Service’s weapons lockers and turn the White House’s armory against the Secret Service. Agents were pinned in the East Wing as the attackers took the president and his staff hostage in the Oval Office. A small team of Secret Service agents stormed the Oval Office and killed the attackers. Twelve agents were killed, and one remains in critical condition at Bethesda.

 


 

He was dreaming of Jack, again.

 

Jack, lying beside him. His fingers stroking his hair, playing with his strands. Smiling down at him. Pressing kisses to his temple, the corners of his eyes. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to. He as there, and he was smiling.

 

But there was a beeping in the background, something strange and out of place. Jack and he were in bed; no they were on a rocky beach, somewhere cold, beside black waves and a cold ocean. No, they were on a sandy beach, in Hawaii. In the White House, in the Residence. He shook his head, blinked. Tried to focus. But Jack faded away, dissipating to nothingness as he clawed his way back to consciousness.

 

The beeping continued. He rolled his head, and regretted it immediately. The world spun, wobbling like a crazed gimbal on overdrive. He managed to make out a heart monitor and an IV pole, though, through the smeared world. He was in a hospital.

 

Bandages covered his chest, his stomach. He felt like he’d been run over by a tank. In the end, he’d charged the lead attacker, firing as he was fired upon. Ethan was a better shot though. Ethan took three shots – two to the belly, one to the right lung.

 

He’d shot the last of the attackers through the center of the forehead. President Gutierrez had been his human shield.

 

Slowly, the world came back into focus. He tried to peer around his hospital room. Everything was fuzzy and out of sorts. The meds they had him on were strong.

 

He froze. Clearly, whatever they had him on was strong enough to make him hallucinate. Because there was no way Senator Jack Spiers was sleeping in a chair beside his hospital bed.

 

The beeping on his heart monitor increased, spiking dramatically. An alert sounded, and footsteps rustled down the hall. A nurse poked her head in. “Well hello, Sleeping Beauty. Or should I say, Sleeping Hero?”

 

“What?” He tried to say. All that came out was a wheeze and a hacking cough. The nurse helped him sit up, helped his broken body resettle.

 

Hands appeared, holding a cup of water. Ethan followed those hands, up over arms, all the way to Jack’s face. Jack, sleepy, unkempt, with wild hair and exhausted, red-rimmed eyes, and a paunchy, puffy face that spoke of sleepless, restless nights. “Jack?”

 

Jack pressed his lips together. He shook his head. Pressed the cup into his hands and walked away to the window on the other side of the room.

 

“Senator Spiers has been keeping vigil over you.” His nurse smiled at him. “He’s been here around the clock. He’s never left.”

 

Jack’s shoulders trembled. Ethan couldn’t tell if it was his own eyes vibrating or if Jack was trying to hide his shaking. What was Jack doing there? Why had he come to Ethan’s bedside?

 

His nurse left him after checking his meds, adjusting his drip, checking his catheter and all of his bandages. He was exhausted by the time she was through, halfway asleep by the time she walked out. But he couldn’t close his eyes, not without knowing why Jack was there. “Jack?”

 

Jack turned. The lights, dimmed for nighttime, caught a wet sheen on his cheeks, at the corners of his eyes. He blinked and looked away, staring out of the hospital window. Sniffed, long and loud. “I thought you were going to die.”

 

“Would it matter if I did?”

 

“Of course it would!” Jack looked horrified, like Ethan had physically struck him.

 

His thoughts were molasses slow, his emotions blunted. He saw the world, but couldn’t feel it. “M’sorry,” he mumbled. “Can’t think right. The meds. Are you even really here?”

 

Jack slumped. “Yes, I’m here, Ethan.” He came back to Ethan’s bedside, into the circle of light over Ethan’s head. His tears shone like diamonds, like fresh rivers on his skin. “I’ll be here when you wake up again, too. I’m not leaving.”

 

One of Jack’s hands slid into Ethan’s. He squeezed, hard. He didn’t let go.

 

“I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

 

Jack shook his head. “Don’t-”

 

“I lost you. I loved you, and I lost you. Exactly what I was afraid of.”

 

Jack’s face twisted again. He sniffed. A tear fell on Ethan’s cheek. “I was working on my seventeenth letter to you when the attack happened. I was trying to figure out what to say. How to tell you-” Jack’s lips squeezed. He shut his eyes.

 

“S’okay. I know.”

 

“No, you don’t, Ethan!” Anger snapped through Jack’s voice, cracking through the room like a whip. “You don’t know!”

 

“I know you don’t love me. Like I loved you.”

 

Jack stared at him, deep into his eyes. “You’re wrong,” he whispered. “You’re wrong.”

 

Frowning, Ethan tried to respond, tried to speak, but his body lost its fight against his meds and he slipped back into unconsciousness.

 


 

Jack was there every time he woke up. Sometimes he was on the phone, talking softly in the corner, trying not to wake Ethan. Other times he was sitting by Ethan’s bedside, as close as he could get without actually getting into the bed with Ethan.

 

Ethan watched him sleep when he woke up in the middle of the night. Jack had pillowed his suit jacket and curled in the chair. He could count each knob on Jack’s spine through his wrinkled button-down.

 

“He’s been there since you were brought to the recovery ward.” His nurse, the sweetest black woman in the history of time, gave him a knowing smile. “It’s news all over the country now.”

 

“What?”

 

“The attack at the White House turned DC upside down. Congress is running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Everyone in the country is panicked, too. People are calling for investigations, committee hearings. How did a group of attackers penetrate the White House? Who brought them in?”

 

Her words swam by Ethan, important, but not what he wanted to hear. “You said he was all over the country…”

 

“He showed up here demanding to see you. Said you were close, best friends. He said he wasn’t going to let you recover in here alone.” She pulled out her cell phone and opened Twitter to Jack’s feed. “He told the nation he was going to stay by your side while you recovered, too.”

 

Friends, we’re all in shock after the terrible attack in DC. I’m devastated by the loss of life. One of my closest and dearest friends, a Secret Service agent, was gravely wounded during this attack. I will be spending time with this American Hero during his recovery. Hug your loved ones tight tonight.

 

Ethan had to read the Tweet five times before it really sank in.

 

“He’s been posting a few updates, too. Nothing too personal.” She scrolled, and there were a handful of Tweets from Jack’s time in the hospital. His chair bed, his “place of vigil”. Ethan’s blanket-covered feet. “Keep resting, hero. We need you to wake up and come back to us.” Ethan’s hand, the IV line stuck into his vein. “We never know how much we care about the people in our lives, until they’re gone. Don’t waste a moment telling your families how much you love them tonight.

 

He blinked fast. Pushed away the phone. Closed his eyes for a moment and tried to breathe.

 

“You all right, sweetie?” His nurse stroked his hair and smiled at him. Something warm, and knowing, sat deep in her gaze.

 

“Who died, in the attack?”

 

She looked down. “Twelve Secret Service agents were killed. I can get you their names?”

 

“Please.”

 


 

The last name on the list she brought him read Agent Levi Daniels, killed in action.

 

Ethan rolled over and buried his face in his pillow. He screamed, sobbed. That morning, he and Daniels had been talking about going out again. Daniels had been right there, by his side through his whole one-sided breakup with Jack. He’d distracted Ethan, taken him out to sports bars to watch ball games, play darts or pool. They’d started running together, lifting weights.

 

Had he done something wrong? Had he failed to cover Levi in the Oval Office? Was there a moment when Levi needed him and he wasn’t there? What had happened? Why hadn’t he saved his friend?

 

A hand stroked down his hair, his back. A cheek pressed against his ear. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Jack’s voice, strangled with tears.

 

Jack knew who his friends were. He had so few, he could easily name them, talk about them. Jack knew about Scott, and about Levi. Harry. He must have read the list and known.

 

He reached for Jack, both hands grabbing at Jack’s shirt, his shoulders, his arms. He pulled him down, until Jack was practically in bed with him. He needed the touch, the comfort. He needed someone to hold him.

 

Jack wrapped both arms around him and pressed their cheeks together. He kept whispering in Ethan’s ear, apologizing and saying his name, stroking his hair. Eventually, Jack did slide into the bed, giving up the folded-in-half pretense of standing. He threw one leg over Ethan’s and pulled him close. Ethan buried his face in Jack’s neck and let his tears run like rivers from the bottom of his soul.

 


 

His nurse made him start walking the next day, up and down the corridors. He hobbled, leaning hard on Jack and keeping a death grip on his IV pole, but he made it. She gave him an extra chocolate pudding for lunch.

 

Sleep beckoned, but he wanted more time with Jack. He needed to know, to understand. What did Jack being at his bedside mean? What did waking up in Jack’s arms, after crying for Levi, mean? Was this just Jack being Jack? Friendly, caring far too much, and letting his heart bleed out for those he-

 

“I saw your Twitter. The nurse showed me.”

 

Jack blushed. “I wasn’t thinking clearly. I thought I was being anonymous, but now the whole country has figured out who you are. There are a lot of people thinking of you and wishing you well.”

 

Ethan flinched. Wasn’t thinking clearly. “You don’t really have to stay anymore. I’m awake now.”

 

There were times that Jack had an intensity, like his soul had expanded, like he had his own gravity that bent reality toward him. Ethan felt that, suddenly, felt Jack’s heat and his presence. He stared at Ethan, eyes burning. “I want to be here. I want to be at your side.”

 

Ethan swallowed, slowly.

 

“If that’s… all right?” Jack seemed nervous. Uncertain, suddenly. “If I’m still welcome,” he said in a rush.

 

“Of course you’re welcome.” Ethan yawned a bone-cracking, jaw-splitting yawn. The world was fading on the edges. “But… why? Why are you here?”

 

Jack took his hand and laced their fingers together. He stroked down each of Ethan’s meaty fingers. “Sleep, Ethan. We’ll talk when you wake up. I’ll be here. I promise.”

 

He wanted to fight, but his body wanted to sleep, and before he could put together a response, his eyes closed, and he was out again.

 

When he woke, Jack was still holding his hand, and he’d laid his cheek on Ethan’s mattress. His other hand lay on Ethan’s knee, as if he was trying to hold onto Ethan, like he was afraid Ethan would disappear from beneath him.

 

The nurse did her checks, head to toe, and changed his bandages. He had four lines of stitches going across his abdomen, like he was a doll sewn together with Frankenstein stitches. Jack stayed right by his side.

 

When she left, Jack took his hand again, cradling it in both of his own. He kissed Ethan’s knuckles, pressed his cheek against the back of Ethan’s hand.

 

Ethan inhaled and held his breath.

 

“I think I’m bi,” Jack whispered. “I didn’t know. I didn’t think I could feel anything anymore. I thought my heart was done, after Leslie died.”

 

“Jack…”

 

“After… what happened, I couldn’t get you out of my mind. I thought I would get over it. I thought it was just… not having been kissed in fifteen years. Not having been touched. There’s been nothing, and no one. I thought… “ Jack licked his lips. “I made up excuse after excuse,” he finally breathed. “But the truth is… I missed you. I missed you so badly.”

 

“Jack-” Ethan tried to jerk his hand free, tried to escape. He couldn’t do this. Couldn’t listen to a half-hearted declaration of love, not when he’d just gotten over Jack himself. He couldn’t do this, couldn’t be just friends with Jack. He’d tried, and he’d failed, and he’d cut out his heart in the process.

 

“I’m dreaming about you. About us. Together. I haven’t jacked off in… years. Now it’s like I can’t stop.” Jack chuckled once. “I tried watching porn. But-” He shook his head. “The only thing gets me going… is you.”

 

He couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t do anything except stare into Jack’s gaze.

 

“I want you, Ethan. I want to stay here, at your side, and help you recover. I want to wake up and see your face, first thing, every day. I want to see your smile. Hear your laugh. I want to look into your eyes before you go to sleep every night. I want to hold your hand.” Jack squeezed. “I want to grill with you, and go to galleries with you, and golf with you, and play frisbee on the National Mall, and meet you for drinks, and after every one of those things, I want to kiss you. I want to kiss you, and I want to figure out what it means that I’m so fucking attracted to you. That I dream about us making love.” He squeezed again and swallowed, hard. “I want to be with you, Ethan. But am I too late?”

 

I think I’m bi. Jack’s voice, his words, crashed through his mind. I think I’m bi. I’m dreaming about you. About us. I think I’m bi.

 

“You said…” Jack shook his head. He looked away. Tears clung to his eyelashes, hovering over his cheeks. “You said you loved me. Past tense. I’m too late, aren’t I? Someone like you… Someone perfect and amazing… you’re not going to wait around. You’re not going to stay single for long. A million guys would kill to be with you. God.” He looked down, and the tears fell down his cheeks, rivers racing to his trembling chin, his day-old scruff.  

 

“Jack… I can’t get over you. I tried. But I couldn’t. Not yet.”

 

Hope, a physical thing, seized Jack, like lightning stuck him, impaled him. He turned to Ethan, his eyes begging, pleading. “Can you give me another chance? Can we try again?”

 

I should be the one apologizing. I kissed you, unasked. That’s… wrong, so wrong. Jack-”

 

Jack leaned in, swooping down and cutting him off. He cupped Ethan’s cheek just before his lips crashed into Ethan’s, melding and merging together. Ethan gasped, almost groaned. He reached for Jack, clawing free of the blankets, pulling out of Jack’s hand hold. He had to touch, had to feel Jack. Jack grabbed him in return, hands everywhere, on his face, sliding through his hair, running down his chest, over his hospital gown. He was beside Ethan, and then he was over him, crawling into the hospital bed. Straddling him.

 

Jack’s crotch settled on top of Ethan’s. He pulled back, eyes wide, drawing in a ragged breath.

 

Ethan felt every hard inch of him. His lips moved, soundlessly.

 

Jack nodded, like he was nodding to himself, answering his own questions, questions he’d carried within him and cried out over Ethan. “Ethan, my God. I’ve missed you so much.”

 


 

Ethan was released a week later.

 

Jack took a few pictures of Ethan smiling and waving from his hospital bed and posted them on Twitter. It was the most Retweeted and liked Tweet of the year, with millions of well wishes and hearts sent their way. Jack started taking calls from Congress again, and gave interviews to CNN from the hospital’s hallway, chiming in on the investigations that had begun. General Madigan, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, claimed ownership of the lead investigation, saying he would be the objective outside eyes, responsible for overseeing the review of America’s national security and intelligence failings in this attack.

 

Gutierrez’s poll ratings continued to fall. He flung blame every direction he could, and started to avoid the media, the spotlight. Rumors from the White House started hitting the national news, saying that Gutierrez was on the warpath, that he wanted to invade the Middle East again, strike back at whomever had tried to kill him.

 

Russia loudly protested any Middle East inclusion. President Puchkov went on camera day after day, insinuating Gutierrez was weak and America was on the decline. What else could explain how their White House, their castle, was taken over? The last time that had happened, America had been a fledgling, weak nation. Perhaps the same was true again.

 

Jack helped Ethan out of the hospital, checking him out late at night to avoid the media circus. They slipped into Jack’s SUV in the hospital’s garage, and Jack checked him over a dozen times on the half hour drive from Bethesda to Ethan’s condo. Jack let Ethan lean on him as they walked in.

 

Ethan had given Jack his keys a few days before, so Jack could get some food and essentials. He should have known better. He should have known Jack would pull something.

 

He walked into a carpet of rose petals, a scattered trail across his hardwood. Unlit candles lined the path, splitting to his bedroom and to his couch, in the living room. His kitchen lights were on, soft and low, casting a glow across his unit. The biggest vase of roses he’d ever seen sat in the middle of his table.

 

“Jack…”

 

His eyes landed on three suitcases tucked into a corner. “Are those yours?”

 

“I haven’t unpacked anything. I’ll only stay over if you want me to. But I want to be here with you. Help you, if you need it. And, I just don’t want to leave your side.” Jack laced his hand through Ethan’s.

 

“I’d love it if you stayed.”

 

Jack beamed.

 

Ethan’s knees wobbled.

 

Jack helped him to his bedroom. His bed was freshly made, his sheets turned down, and a single red rose lay on his pillow.

 

“I wanted you to know I’m serious,” Jack said softly. “About everything. About us. And I wanted to make it up to you, as much as I could.”

 

“You don’t have anything to make up for.”

 

“I broke your heart. I hurt you, Ethan.”

 

“I should have talked to you. I didn’t tell you what I feeling. And then it all came apart when I couldn’t hold my emotions in check anymore. But I shouldn’t have kissed you.”

 

Jack tucked him in and kissed him sweetly. “I’ll go sleep on the couch.”

 

“No.” Ethan patted the bed beside him. He had more than enough room. “Stay here?”

 

“You’re healing.”

 

“We’re not going to have sex tonight.” Ethan grinned. “These meds… I can’t. But I do want to be close to you. Feel you next to me.”

 

He saw Jack melt, watched his eyes go soft. Jack stripped in front of him, dropping his pants and button-down on the floor. He left his boxers on, and his undershirt, and climbed into bed beside Ethan.

 

It was perfection. Their bodies fit in every way, from the way Jack’s arms wrapped around him to the way their hips aligned, their thighs, their shins. HIs toes wiggled against Jack’s. Jack’s breath tickled his neck. Lips kissed his hair, the curve of his ear.

 

Ethan kissed Jack’s palm and pressed his hand to his own chest, right over his heart.

 


 

On the third day Jack slipped out of bed before dawn and disappeared into the bathroom, Ethan finally figured it out.

 

He stopped Jack the next morning, tugging him back into bed. Jack tried to angle his hips away, tried to cover his crotch. “Let me,” Ethan breathed. He pressed a kiss to Jack’s belly, his hip bone. Pulled down his boxers.

 

Jack’s fingers slid into his hair, and he screamed Ethan’s name when he came, bucking and shaking apart beneath Ethan’s hands and lips. Ethan shimmied up the bed and grinned. Jack grabbed him, kissed him breathless. “I can taste myself,” he moaned. His eyes blazed. “I want to taste you.”

 


 

Ethan took two months’ medical leave, and he spent most every day by Jack’s side. The hearings continued, and Jack bounced between the Capitol and Texas, flying home to meetings with his constituents over the weekend and for afternoons during the middle of the week. He came back, always, to Ethan.

 

Jack helped him visit Arlington, and the graves of his fallen agents. Levi’s grave. He held Ethan’s hand as Ethan wept, kneeling before Levi’s headstone with a fist of white roses in his hands. “I’m so sorry,” Jack had breathed, holding him as the autumn leaves blew around their ankles and over the graves.

 

One weekend, Jack’s roommates planned to head to their own districts, vacating the house completely. Jack invited Ethan over to grill burgers and drink beer and soak up the last of the autumn sun before the weather turned frigid again. Ethan didn’t have a grill in his posh, eighth-floor condo. He happily agreed.

 

They ate and drank and made out in the kitchen, and Jack tried to improve his blow job technique as Ethan clung to the counter. He gave Jack an A+ every time, but still, Jack was determined to keep improving. Or so he said.

 

In the evening, Jack put on Netflix and they curled up on the big couch in the main room together, Jack lying between Ethan’s legs, his head pillowed on Ethan’s chest. They’d ditched their clothes hours before, padding around in just boxers and their undershirts.

 

Jack fell asleep on Ethan after an hour, but Ethan didn’t want to move. He held on to Jack, kissing his hair and stroking his back as the TV droned quietly on.

 

Keys turning in the door made him stiffen. Adrenaline coiled his muscles, shot lightning through his veins.

 

Did he jump up? Did they make a run for it? Fuck, there wasn’t time. The door opened to the couch, to the main room. If they tried to run, they’d be seen. Fuck, fuck. He tried to recall everything he knew about Jack’s roommates. Would they be all right with what they were about to walk in on?

 

Shafer, exhausted, pushed through the door. He stared down at his phone screen, sighing, and didn’t see them, not right away. The glow of the TV caught his eye, though. “Hey-”

 

He stopped, his rubber sole squeaking against the hardwood as his jaw dropped. His gaze darted from Jack, still sleeping, to Ethan, holding him close and staring at Shafer. Shafer blinked, closing his eyes for a long moment. He pointed at Jack, and then at Ethan, his eyebrows shooting up.

 

Ethan nodded. He kissed Jack’s head.

 

Shafer’s jaw dropped farther. He held up his hands and backed away, heading for his stairs down to the basement bedroom he lived in.

 

Ethan waited until his heart had slowed before kissing Jack awake and leading him upstairs. Jack and Watts each had bedrooms on the third floor, and Karthi had the master suite on the second. Jack pulled him into his bedroom – simple, with a queen bed and a dresser, a throw rug and a window seat overlooking the backyard – and then tugged him into bed. The kissed, and kissed, and kissed, until Jack rolled onto his back and shimmied out of his boxers. Ethan pulled away-

 

But Jack pulled him back. He reached for Ethan’s boxers and started tugging them down. “I want this.”

 

They’d done hands and mouths and had made out for hours with their boxers on, but Ethan had always pulled away from being completely, 100 percent naked in bed with Jack. Had always kept something between them. He wasn’t ready for that yet, wasn’t ready for Jack to freak out and run away if things went sideways. “Are you sure?”

 

“Completely.” Jack smiled, and kissed him again.

 

Ethan’s boxers fell over the side of the bed.

 


 

Jack kissed Ethan awake, until Ethan muffled his screams in Jack’s pillow as Jack sucked him dry. He repaid the favor, flipping Jack and devouring him, his thumbs just barely grazing the cleft of Jack’s ass. Jack kept pushing down, as if he wanted more, wanted Ethan to go further. But Ethan held back. Not yet.

 

After, breathless, he confessed Shafer’s unexpected homecoming the night before. “He saw us. On the couch.”

 

Jack blinked. Shrugged. “Okay.”

 

“Aren’t you concerned? Don’t you want to keep this secret?”

 

“Not particularly, no. I was thinking we’d be more public, sometime soon. Go on a date. Not hide. Whoever sees sees.”

 

Ethan shook his head. “Jack, no. What about your constituents? What about running for president?”

 

“What about it?”

 

“You can’t run for president if you’re dating me.”

 

“Who says I can’t?”

 

“Jack…”

 

“If people like my policies and like my positions, then they’ll vote for me. If they don’t, then they won’t. Who I am sleeping with doesn’t matter in that equation.”

 

“You know that’s not true. You know it’s not.”

 

“I’m not hiding this, Ethan. I don’t care who says what, or what happens. I’m not treating you like a dirty secret. I’m not going to be one of those senators. I’m not ashamed of you, or of us.”

 

Damn it, it was because of Jack’s heart, his character, that Ethan had fallen for him in the first place. And now, it was going to get Jack into a world of trouble, Ethan just fucking knew.

 


 

Shafer was reading the morning paper in the kitchen when they came down. He sipped his coffee and stared at them both over the rim. “Morning, you two.”

 

“Morning.” Jack grinned and grabbed two coffee cups. He made a point of kissing Ethan as he brought Ethan’s coffee to the island.

 

Shafer snorted. “So… I take it this is why you held that hospital vigil? And where you’ve been disappearing to for the past few months?”

 

“Yes to both.”

 

“I… had no idea. You guys kept it really quiet.”

 

“It’s new.” Jack stirred a spoonful of sugar into his coffee. “We weren’t dating before.”

 

Shafer frowned. “I assume this relationship, and your sexuality, Jack, are part of those deep DC secrets? The ones we bury in the Potomac and never speak of?”

 

“No. It’s not a secret. I want to go public with us.”

 

“Okay, Jack.” Shafer leaned forward. “Listen. What do you think your constituents in Texas will do if you come out? They’ll start screaming that you lied, that you hid your sexuality. You’ll be tanked.”

 

“Texas is changing. We had the first transgender mayor in the nation. Texans spoke out and refused to allow their legislature to restrict bathroom usage by any transgender individual. Our courts have heard challenges to the marriage equality ruling by SCOTUS, but have upheld the ruling every time. Yes, there are bigots. There are discriminatory assholes there. But there’s also compassion and equality and a hunger for… basic human decency. I believe that’s why I was elected. I beat out the old conservative hate-monger who used to hold the seat. Texans wanted change.”

 

“But their senator coming out as gay might be a bridge too far.”

 

“I’m bi.”

 

Shafer glared at him. “Good luck hosting a town hall in Houston explaining that difference. Look, your state will be in turmoil. You’ll face an uphill reelection. The GOP will probably primary someone against you, and use your relationship to attack you. You’re doing great work in Congress. Do you really want to open yourself up to those attacks?”

 

“Do I really want to live a lie? Keep my relationship with Ethan, the most meaningful part of my life, in the shadows? You’re asking me to get in a closet. Live in shame.”

 

“I’m asking you to think about the bigger picture. You can’t imagine it will be all roses and sunshine. There will be consequences. Especially in your jacked-up political party.”

 

“Then maybe I won’t be a Republican anymore.”

 

Shafer snorted. “You wanna become a Democrat? Texans will really go nuts then.”

 

“What about something different? Something brand new? Something no one has ever seen before?”

 


 

They decided to come out at Gutierrez’s first state dinner.

 

The British Prime Minister was coming to DC, working on a joint military operation with President Gutierrez that the Russians were trying to tear down on every news channel. Tensions thrummed around the world, with Russian military units buzzing US units in the Middle East. Madigan still hadn’t found out who had sent the attackers, he said, but he was certain that they had to respond, and fast. Nervous, errant shots fired across battle lines almost every day. One day, a stray bullet was going to cause a war, Jack kept saying on CNN. This was the time to talk, not the time to plan a new war.

 

The buzz around Jack as a potential contender for the presidency grew louder.

 

Jack picked out matching tuxes for him and Ethan, along with yellow cummerbunds and yellow roses for their lapels. “It’s the yellow rose of Texas,” he said to Ethan’s bemused smile. “It’s meaningful to my state.”

 

Ethan had just come back on light duty a few weeks before, per his doctor. He assigned Scott and Harry to lead the state dinner’s security team. Welby had taken Levi’s spot in the detail, but Ethan couldn’t quite make himself accept that. Not yet.

 

He didn’t tell Scott, or Harry, or anyone. He made sure the guest list read, “Senator Spiers, plus guest.”

 

“We need to vet this guest of Spiers!” Scott grumbled. “We need to run a security check.”

 

“Look, I’m sure it’s going to be fine. He probably has good reason for not informing us of his guest’s particulars yet. We’ll keep to the same procedures we always do for last minute changes. On-the-spot criminal checks. It will be fine.”

 

“Fucking Senators. Thinking they can do anything.”

 

Ethan tried to hide his smile.

 

He left early that day and went home, where Jack was already busy getting ready. He slipped into the shower with Jack, and when they were finally finished, they were running late. They dressed quickly, slipping into their tuxes and cummerbunds and fixing their boutonnieres to their lapels.

 

“Are you absolutely certain you want to do this, Jack?”

 

Jack cupped his cheeks and looked into his eyes. “I am one hundred percent certain. If there is a choice between a political future and a future with you, then I chose the future with you.”

 

God, Jack could shake the world with that strength of conviction. He’d already overturned Ethan’s world, had shaken his entire existence out of orbit. “I want to be with you forever. But I’m okay with whatever that looks like.”

 

“It is going to look like this.” Jack took his hand, and led him out of the door.

 


 

The receiving line for state dinners was always the worst part. Guests waited for a picture with the president and his guest of honor, each attendee getting about twenty seconds with the president before the photo. At over three hundred guests, twenty seconds added up fast. It took a little over an hour for Jack and Ethan to move through the line.

 

Ethan watched Scott, watched him manage Gutierrez. Scott had his constipated look on, the one he always accused Ethan of wearing whenever they were out of the White House and on alert. He smiled.

 

Jack linked their arms at the elbows. His hand rested on Ethan’s forearm. Ethan squeezed his hand and met Jack’s gaze. There were only two people in front of them.

 

He saw the moment Scott recognized him. Saw Scott’s jaw drop and his face blanch. Saw Scott’s eyes dart to Jack, and then recognition crash into him. Anyone could have knocked Scott over with a leaf at that moment.

 

The greeter ushered them forward, taking their name cards. “Mr. President,” he said, addressing Gutierrez. “Senator Jack Spiers and Mr. Ethan Reichenbach.”

 

They stepped forward, arms entwined, Ethan’s hand firmly covering Jack’s. “Mr. President.”

 

Gutierrez stared, stunned into silence. He looked at Ethan, and then at Jack. “I…” He blinked. “Agent Reichenbach. I had no idea.”

 

Jack smiled, kept smiling, laughing at the world, inside his head. Ethan could almost hear his chuckles. He grinned, and winked at Scott. “Mr. President, it’s an interesting experience being here as a guest.”

 

Gutierrez recovered quickly. “Well, I hope you both have a fantastic time tonight. Senator, we really need to get together. Try and talk things through.”

 

“I couldn’t agree more, Mr. President.”

 

They shook hands with Gutierrez and the British Prime Minister, posed for their photo, and  turned away. Before they did, Ethan felt Scott’s hand on his elbow. “You son of a bitch,” Scott whispered in his ear.

 

When he turned to snap something back at Scott, Ethan saw the warm happiness filling Scott’s eyes, the smile he’d failed to smother. He grinned back.

 

Dinner was a blur, a mix of shocked faces and people exclaiming over and over that they didn’t know, that they were so happy for them both. Ethan and Jack shared bites of food and drank too much champagne, until Jack couldn’t keep his hands off Ethan’s leg beneath the table.

 

Dinner turned to dancing, and they moved to the ballroom hand in hand. Jack led Ethan onto the dance floor for the goofiest moves, song after song. Eventually, a slow song came on, and Ethan pulled Jack into his arms, aligned their bodies from their knees to their chests. Jack held him close, beaming.

 

“I think this went well.”

 

“It’s going to be all over the internet. All over the news tomorrow.”

 

“Bring it on.”

 

Ethan laughed. “You’re amazing. Doing this. Taking this chance, with me.”

 

You’re amazing, Ethan.” Jack smiled again, his eyes changing, going soft. He licked his lips, held Ethan’s gaze. “Wanna know something else that’s not a secret?”

 

“What’s that?”

 

“I love you, Ethan Reichenbach.”

 

Ethan’s heart burst. He was certain Jack could feel it. He gasped, tried to control the smile that was breaking his face. If anyone looked at them, they would know, for sure, that Jack had just told Ethan he loved him for the very first time.

 

“I love you, Jack. I love you so much it scares me. I’d do anything for you. For us.”

 

“Will you be with me when I announce my new political party tomorrow?”

 

“Yes. For you, yes.”

 

“Will you be my first gentleman, if I become president?”

 

“You will be president, Jack. I know it. And you know I’m with you all the way.”

 


 

Timestamp: Alternate Universe! This never happened! 🙂

 

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!”

 

“Ilya—”

 

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

 

Ilya—”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sergey turned to Sasha.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“That doesn’t change what he did.”

 

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

 

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

 

“And?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“You think he’s using me—”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“We are going to keep it quiet, yes.”

 

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

 

“Ilya—”

 

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

 

Sergey twisted, staring over his shoulder. Ilya froze.

 

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

 

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

 

If so, then why had—

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

* * *

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Please. Don’t… try to push…

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Their eyes met.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Gone to a hockey game?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sergey’s breath hitched.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Would Sasha leave?

 

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

 

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

 


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

 

 

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

 

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


 

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

He needed a break.

“So… what are we doing for Halloween?”

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

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

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

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

Ethan lowered his head, hiding his smile.

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

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

“Where’d your mind go?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

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

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

He conspicuously didn’t gesture to Jack.

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Every gay man hides parts of himself.”

“Even now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack’s breath hitched.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

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

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

Ethan flushed. “Things can get… kinky.”

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

“Your birthday was great.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack beamed. “You.”

“What?”

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

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

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

“I’d… have to wear your yellow tie.”

“That can be arranged.”

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

Jack sighed. His shoulders slumped.

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

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

Ethan smiled.

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

Ethan wanted to shut the door on their faces.

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

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

“Arm wrestling contest?”

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

“What the hell?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please, let this last.

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

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

“I’m excited. I want to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Beech and Welby are here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethan looked at Jack. Jack stared back.

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

Ethan moaned.

Their eyes met.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jack beamed. “We are!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then it’s time to go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

* * *

 

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

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

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

“All that gayness?”

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

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

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

“Maybe… one day… we could go back?”

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

 


 

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

 

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

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes!

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

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

Happy Reading!


 

Jack is so peaceful when he sleeps.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

If it weren’t for Ethan

 

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

 

Sergey squeezed shut his eyes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Why had Sasha left him?

 

Why had Sasha kissed him?

 

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

 

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

 

Wasn’t it?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

He wouldn’t let Sasha get into the jet.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What could they have had, though?

 

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

 

They could have had a true first kiss.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I wish you were Sasha.

 

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

 

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

 

Until Sasha had stolen his soul.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Fuck.

 

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

 

Sasha.

 

“Jack.”

 

Jack froze. He didn’t breathe.

 

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

 

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

 

Silence.

 

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

 

“Jack.”

 

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

 

“Sergey?” A single word, a question.

 

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

 

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

 

“Sergey, I—” Sasha said.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sergey… Are you saying you’re—”

 

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

 

Sergey inhaled, waiting for the blow.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“No?”

 

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

 

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

 

“No. I never did.”

 

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

 

“So you hid what you felt?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Is it… just Sasha?”

 

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

 

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

 

But it wouldn’t have been the same.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Sergey—”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Sasha… I love you.  

 


 

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

 

First Impressions – Executive Office

 

Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes! This week, I’m completing Charlotte’s prompt request. Charlotte asked for the first impressions of her favorite characters. We take a look at The Executive Office, and Jack and Ethan, today… as well as a surprise character at Charlotte’s request! 🙂


 

 

Ethan

 

“Agent Reichenbach.” Director Peter Stahl looked him in the eye and shook his hand. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

 

“Thank you, sir.” Ethan smiled wide. He couldn’t not. Finally, after months, the Director of the Secret Service had issued the orders: he was now in charge of the White House Presidential Detail. Him. He was the first openly gay Secret Service agent to climb the ranks. To earn the top spot. After this, it was almost guaranteed he’d head over to Headquarters and serve on the senior staff.

 

One day, maybe even be in line to be the Deputy Director. Or, even the Director.

 

But first things first. He had a president to serve, for four years, or perhaps eight.

 

“As part of your promotion, I’m sending you out to take the lead on Senator Spiers’s campaign detail. He’s predicted to win, even this far out. The margins aren’t even close. It will be good for you to get a feel for his style before he moves into the West Wing.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“You have your senior team picked?”

 

“Yes sir. Agents Collard, Daniels, and Inada will be on my detail. Agent Welby will serve as my second in command.”

 

“Good choices. I expect you’ll run a tight ship. Secret Service Presidential Protections will be a brisk operation under your leadership.”

 

“Thank you, sir.” Again, Ethan smiled, so wide his cheeks started to ache.

 

“You’ll join Senator Spiers’s campaign Monday, July 11th. The Senator’s chief of staff will brief you, and then you’re in command.” Stahl shook his hand again. “Lead Agent Reichenbach.”

 

* * *

 

Monday, July 11th, Ethan wore his best suit. He picked out his best shoes and shined them to a mirror polish the night before at the hotel in Cincinnati, where Senator Spiers was stumping for the weekend. He got a haircut the Friday before he, Scott, and Daniels left DC. He put up with Scott’s good-natured ribbing about how he was trying to look too good, and was already there to work over the big boss.

 

“Let him win the election first,” Scott had snorted. “Then you can go all Rambo on his ass. These are his last months of freedom. Let him enjoy them, before the White House cage snaps shut.”

 

He took a dawn coffee briefing from Senator Spiers’s chief of staff, a thin, reticent man named Jeff Gottschalk. “The Senator knows you’re arriving today. He wants to meet you all.”

 

They waited in the campaign’s mobile command center, drinking coffee and trying to stay out of the way. Not easy, when they were each hulking blocks of muscle, strapped with guns on their hips and enough ammunition hidden on their bodies to take out a small army. Their trench coats, the Secret Service unofficial uniform, swept the floor.

 

“The Senator likes to keep us waiting?” Scott leaned into Ethan’s side, almost whispering, but not quite. “This should be good. Great start. Four years are going to go so fast.”

 

Daniels rolled his eyes. He went back to checking out some of the ladies working down the line.

 

Finally, the air in the room shifted. People moved faster, seemed to perk up. Heads turned toward the far door across the hotel’s conference room. The hotel’s plans flashed in Ethan’s mind. An inner staircase that Senator Spiers would be using to move around the hotel. He straightened. Elbowed Scott in the side.

 

The double doors opened, and Senator Jack Spiers strode in. He had two cell phones in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, and was listening to Gottschalk, walking beside him and talking quickly into his ear. Aides buzzed behind him, checking their phones, clutching newspapers under their arms, balancing tablets in front of them as they walked. Frenetic energy surrounded the Senator, all focused on him.

 

But in the center of it all, Senator Jack Spiers seemed as calm as ever.

 

Ethan appraised him like he would a military target, taking in everything from head to toe. Spiers’s blue suit, a shade lighter than was usual and customary in DC. It set off his skin, his blond hair, and made both seem brighter, more golden. His hands were quick, swiping through his phone and sipping his coffee. His eyes were bright and vibrant, peering intently at Gottschalk as he listened to his chief of staff, nodding along, softening at times.

 

This was a man in control. Confidently in control, content in his surroundings. He had power, but wielded it under a governed layer of calm surety.

 

No wonder he was ahead in the polls. Just watching him enter a room, Ethan was already willing to cast his vote. Of course, he never voted. It didn’t seem right, putting his finger on one side of the scale, when the president’s life was going to be in his hands. His job was to remain above politics, outside of politics. No matter the cost.

 

Scott whistled under his breath. “So that’s him.”

 

Ethan grunted.

 

Senator Spiers’s gaze swept the room, still listening to Gottschalk’s endless chatter. Had Gottschalk told him they were here? They needed to brief the Senator, explain the procedures for campaign security. The protections they were going to institute, starting that day, and when they traveled that afternoon to Detroit.

 

Spiers’s eyes landed on Ethan. Their gazes locked.

 

He’s got great eyes.

 

Spiers smiled, beaming. He reached for Gottschalk, politely extricating himself from his chief of staff’s briefing, and headed their way.

 

Spiers had been called the most attractive politician in memory. He had pretty boy good looks, the news said, and he was the kind of candidate Hollywood would drum up in a movie. Some accused him of being all style and no substance, lean on the parts of governance where it really mattered. Lean on experience, where it counted. Ethan hadn’t paid attention to the particulars. Politics wasn’t his job.

 

But, as Spiers walked toward them—

 

Wow. That smile…

 

He cleared his throat, straightened his shoulders. Squared himself, and clasped his hands behind his back.

 

“Gentleman.” Senator Spiers kept smiling the whole way across the room, kept smiling as he said hello. “Welcome to the campaign.”

 

“Sir.” Ethan held out his hand. “I’m Agent Reichenbach.” He introduced Scott, Daniels, and Inada.

 

Spiers took it, wrapping his free hand around Ethan’s as they shook. “I am incredibly grateful for your service. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for doing what you do.”

 

Clearing his throat, Ethan shook his head. “All part of the job, sir.”

 

“What can I do for you gentleman? What do you need from me, and from us?”

 

Scott, just faintly, snorted. Ethan could practically read his mind. Sir, we need your complete and total cooperation as we turn your life upside down, put you in a zoo, and throw away the key. Alright, into the straightjacket, there you go, be a good president…

 

“Sir, we have a briefing we’ll present to you later this morning. It will outline our needs. We will need dedicated office space, your schedules and access to your scheduling staff, and close coordination with your chief of staff to ensure that your protection is now our, and this campaign’s, number one priority.”

 

“I think winning the election is the number one priority for most everyone here. But, I’ll see to it that you get everything you need. If you’re not getting what you need, Agent Reichenbach, please address it with me personally.”

 

That tie really sets off his eyes. Have I ever seen a brighter blue?

 

“Thank you, sir. We’re very happy to be here working with you.”

 

He could feel Scott’s eyes bore into the back of his skull.

 

Spiers smiled, again, that beaming smile of his. Ethan couldn’t help it. He grinned back, just slightly. Oh, he’s definitely going to win the election. He’s a shoe-in. And no wonder.

 

“I look forward to getting to know you all. Please, make yourselves at home. This campaign is open to you in every way. We’ll talk more later today.” Spiers nodded once and moved off, heading back to his senior staff and Gottschalk, scrolling through his phone as he drank from an extra-large thermos of coffee.

 

“‘We’re very happy to be here’?” Scott leaned into his shoulder, snorting. “That’s not the line. ‘We’re here to do our job’ is what you’re supposed to say.”

 

“Whatever.” Ethan shook him off. “Let’s go get our gear and get set up. We’ve got five hours until we’re on the move to Detroit. Let’s get some work done.”

 

Danger, his mind whispered. Danger.

 

* * *

 

Jack

 

If someone had told him that the presidential campaign would be the single most exhausting endeavor he’d ever undertaken, he might have thought twice before deciding to make a run for the White House.

 

He was beyond tired. His exhaustion was exhausted. But, he never let it show. He just called it training. The presidency was going to be intense.

 

And, when he was tired, he knew his staff was even more so.

 

“This is what it will be like in the White House,” Pete Reyes, his campaign press manager, had said. Of course, he’d been grinning like a madman, bouncing a basketball on the hotel’s court at 2 AM as they both tried to exhaust their insomnia.

 

“Except, instead of speeches, it’s going to be world leaders and threats that will keep us up all night.”

 

“Think the White House has a basketball court?” Pete tried for a shot from the three-point line. He missed.

 

“They have a swimming pool. If you can’t find me, check there.”

 

“On the surface or at the bottom?” Pete winked.

 

Jack had chucked the ball at Pete, and they played for another forty-five minutes before turning in, finally physically exhausted enough to quiet their racing, raging minds.

 

There was always something to think about. Something to consider, or reconsider. Something to mull over, or obsess about. A speech to fine tune. Policy positions to examine. And, dreams to dream.

 

The White House. The presidency.

 

It was really going to happen.

 

He was finally starting to believe it. The poll numbers were there. The metrics were positive, and trending even more so. Hell, his Secret Service detachment had arrived that day.

 

“Four agents, Senator,” Jeff Gottschalk had said, briefing him in his hotel room over breakfast. “They sent the White House lead detail agent, Agent Reichenbach. They think you’re going to win this. They expect you to be in the White House.”

 

He’d needed a moment, after that.

 

The Secret Service agents were exactly what he’d expected, what he’d seen around DC so many, many times. Tall, hulking men, scowling at the world around them. Distrust wafted from them, a projection so strong they seemed to be holding signs that told the world to stay the fuck away from them. They were the linebackers of the political world, lions that lived in their protectee’s shadow.

 

He’d wanted to make them feel welcome. Wanted to make them feel at ease, especially if these were the men he was going to be seeing so much of for the next four years… in the White House. He’d tried, he really had.

 

But, Agent Reichenbach was as hard as they came. His handshake felt like granite. His jaw could have been chiseled from marble. If he smiled, it was a rare occurrence. Jack had teased a tiny grin out of him during their conversation, and that alone felt like he’d won the Texas primary, for a moment.

 

Was this his future? Being shielded and surrounded by a man who was built like Captain America, but had all the personality of the government distilled into a teaspoon? Concentrated lack of government humor?

 

No, there was more to Agent Reichenbach. That miniscule smile proved it.

 

And, what had happened later.

 

The campaign had been getting ready to break down and head out, make their way to Detroit. He’d needed another cup of coffee, stat, and he’d headed for the coffee bar the campaign kept in their command center at every stop.

 

Reichenbach was there, too, making his own cup of coffee.

 

“Senator.” Reichenbach nodded as he’d approached. He tried to step out of the way halfway through his pour.

 

“Please, finish. Don’t interrupt your coffee on my account.”

 

Reichenbach nodded. He took his coffee black, no cream, no sugar.

 

And then, he’d poured a fresh cup of coffee. “How do you take yours, Senator?”

 

“Oh, there’s no need for you to do—”

 

“It’s in my purview as a Secret Service agent, sir. I need to know everything, absolutely everything, about you. Your dark secrets. Your dirty laundry. And how you take your coffee.” He finished pouring and winked over his shoulder.

 

“When I was seven, I ran a stop sign on my bicycle.” Jack smiled. “I think I still have an unpaid parking ticket at my college. And, I take two sugars in my coffee.”

 

Reichenbach had chuckled softly as he stirred two sugar packets into the second cup. “I think the statute of limitations has passed for both. Though, I’ll have to check on the traffic violation on your bicycle. You are very young, Senator. You might still be on the hook for that crime.”

 

Was that the faintest hint of panic that flashed in Reichenbach’s eyes? For a moment, it had almost seemed like Reichenbach regretted what he’d said, the dry humor peeking out of the hard shell of the agent.

 

Jack had laughed as he accepted the coffee Reichenbach made for him. “If it helps reduce my sentence, I was very remorseful. I couldn’t even eat dinner that night.”

 

Reichenbach’s smile had reappeared. He’d looked down, as if he was trying to hide the evidence of his little grin. “Sir—”

 

“Is there coffee?” Gottschalk had appeared beside Jack, then, sighing and squeezing his eyes, more sleep deprived than even Jack was. “Please, God, say there’s still coffee.”

 

Reichenbach had stepped aside, freeing the coffee bar for Jeff. He’d started to leave.

 

“Agent Reichenbach?”

 

“Sir?”

 

“Maybe you can help settle something between Jeff and I.” What had he been thinking? Jack didn’t even know. But, he’d barreled on ahead anyway, the way he always did. “What do you think of my tie?” Jack smoothed his hand down his chest, over his sunny yellow tie, as Gottschalk groaned.

 

“God, for Christ’s sake, take that tie off. You look like a carnie.” Gottschalk had glowered at him, and then turned his ire toward Reichenbach. “Please, Agent Reichenbach, for all that’s good in the world. Tell him to take that hideous tie off.”

 

Jack had waited, grinning.

 

“I like the tie. It brings out your eyes, sir.”

 

Gottschalk almost inhaled his third swallow of coffee and hacked out a lung, coughing as he glared at Reichenbach.

 

Jack had beamed.

 

But, before Jack could say anything else, Reichenbach raised his cup of coffee, a kind of salute, and strode away, moving quickly. As if he wanted to escape.

 

Jack had turned his grin to Gottschalk, who rolled his eyes at him. “I don’t care what it does to your eyes, it’s still ugly.”

 

So what had that been? Hours later, and Jack was still mulling it over. Still trying to puzzle through the mystery that was his new Secret Service agent.

 

It wasn’t like he didn’t have a billion other things he could be thinking about. He was speaking in four different places in Detroit tomorrow and then flying down to Boulder, Colorado, after that. He had exactly no time to be ruminating on the odd behavior of Agent Reichenbach.

 

Jack flopped onto his side in the hotel’s king bed and dragged a pillow into his arms. Sometimes, he thought it would be nice to have someone there at night. Someone to hold on to. But he’d long ago decided he would remain single, remain a widower, for the rest of his days. There was just no one else in the world he wanted to get close to. No beautiful faces made him yearn. No laughing personality made his heart race. Pillows would be all he ever held close, ever again.

 

His thoughts drifted as he fell, finally, into his exhausted slumber. Agent Reichenbach, there’s more to you. I know there is.

 

Maybe one day, he’d get to find out.

 

* * *

 

Blake Becker

 

Oh God. Oh, for fuck’s sake. Oh, God, no. Anyone but him. Anyone, literally anyone.

 

Why the hell was Agent Ethan Reichenbach, the fucking boyfriend of the president of the United States, coming to the Des Moines, Iowa, field office?

 

Shepard, the agent in charge of their nine-man operation, looked like he’d lost a fight with a gorilla. He delivered the news in their weekly staff meeting with all the enthusiasm of a man condemned to die. “Agent Reichenbach will begin his assignment here in two weeks’ time.”

 

Stares and dropped jaws, all around the table.

 

“He’s still… in the Secret Service?”

 

“Shouldn’t he be fired? Totally fired?”

 

“Isn’t he, like, the worst-case example of what not to do as an agent?”

 

Shephard held up his hand. “Director Triplett has made the call. Reichenbach is coming here.”

 

“So, he and the president aren’t staying together, then? He’s just being quietly reassigned so everyone forgets about him?”

 

“God, I hope so.” Shephard scrubbed his hands over his face. “I hope he just keeps his head down and the press ignores him. If they’re not together, all the novelty of Reichenbach and where he stuck his dick will wear off. If we’re lucky, he’ll just fade away, like all the attention he’s been getting will, after they break up.”

 

* * *

 

Except, that wasn’t true at all.

 

Reichenbach and the president were staying together. In fact, they were keeping up a long-distance relationship. The president and his boyfriend… who now lived in Des Moines.

 

The media attention didn’t decrease. It increased, about a thousand-fold.

 

Shephard blew his top. He screamed on the phone, railed at the Director inside his office and behind closed doors. She talked him down, but it was a long three hours that they all spent waiting for the grenade to go off in Shephard’s office.

 

And then, the two weeks were up, and Reichenbach’s first day arrived.

 

Becker and the others all huddled outside of the breakroom, waiting for their first glimpse of the man. What did a man who had seduced the president of the United States look like? Did he exude some kind of raw animal magnetism? Was he a maverick? Did he think the rules didn’t apply to him anymore? Was he going to be a raging, apocalyptic asshole?

 

The door to their office clicked open. Someone walked in.

 

Everyone’s heads turned. Stared.

 

Ethan Reichenbach, boyfriend to the president, walked into the Des Moines office. His shoulders were hunched, and he looked left and right as if trying to find someone. He seemed lost, and even though he was a large man, well-built, and obviously stronger than a bull, he seemed small. Diminutive, in a way. As if he was trying not to take up any space, draw any attention to himself.

 

Finally, he saw everyone waiting outside the breakroom, clustered in a tight knot just to the right of Shephard’s office.

 

Becker stared. Reichenbach stared back.

 

It wasn’t an arrogant stare, though. The haughtiness, the rancid smugness, the air of superiority they all expected was missing. Reichenbach looked like a man who had come back from war. Like a man who had learned all his lessons the hard way. Like a man who had left something precious, something integral to himself, behind. Like a man that wanted to be anywhere but there.

 

No, not anywhere.

 

He wanted to be back in DC. Becker could see it, plain as day.

 

“Reichenbach!” Shephard yanked open his office door. “In here. I’ll brief you.” Shephard scowled at Becker and the rest of the agents. “Don’t you have cases to run?”

 

Becker and the others scattered, vanishing back into their cubicles. He stopped, though, outside of his. The cubicle next to him was empty. Was Reichenbach going to be working there? He was the only agent without a partner. He was the odd man out. Was he going to get Reichenbach as a partner? Was that even allowed? Was Reichenbach, really, even an agent anymore?

 

What could he learn from Reichenbach, though? The thought, the idea, that there was something he might be able to pull from Reichenbach, was tantalizing. What stories he might have. Of course, not the stories of seducing the president, or of being the worst agent in the history of the Secret Service. But, before that. He’d been the lead detail agent. He had to have been hot shit at one time. He had to know thing, real things.

 

Becker looked back toward Shephard’s office. The door was closed and the blinds were drawn. Who knew what was going on inside.

 

Once, Reichenbach had to have been something pretty special.

 

Now, he was just a man with a broken heart, forced into exile, and forced to wear his bad decisions, public humiliation, and his personal shame for everyone – literally everyone – to see, played out on the national and international media, day in and day out.

 

Becker almost felt sorry for him.


Timestamp: Before Enemies of the State, when Jack & Ethan first meet on the presidential campaign (referenced in Interlude); Blake Becker’s first impressions of Ethan at the end of Enemies of the State.

 

First Impressions – Hush

 

So sorry for the day delay on Bauer’s Bytes! I have been under the weather, and yesterday, I just couldn’t beat back this flu enough to get the Bytes up. So sorry!

This week, I tackled one of Charlotte’s prompts. Charlotte wanted to know what the first impressions of some of her favorite characters were upon meeting. This week, Mike and Tom from Hush. Next week, characters from the Executive Office series! 🙂 Thanks for a great prompt, Charlotte!


 

 

Mike

 

“Here’s another one.” Winters dropped a thick binder on Mike’s desk. It was bigger than the other binders Winters had dropped off over the years, much bigger. “Tom Brewer. Former AUSA. The Senate confirmed him as the newest DC federal judge. I don’t think you ever crossed his path when he was AUSA. Here’s his background investigation.”

 

Mike pulled Tom Brewer’s binder across the desk. It felt like a brick. “Why is his background so huge? Does he have a colorful past?”

 

A colorful past. A polite euphemism for a fucked-up history, a professional past littered with complaints, sexual harassment issues, covered-up affairs, and more. DUIs that had been wiped by the DC police. Former staffers that had quietly been moved across the country.

 

“Exactly the opposite. He’s squeaky clean. Too clean. Made people nervous.”

 

Mike flipped open the binder, flicking through pages and pages of cleared background forms, endless “no” answers to all the bad questions, explanation sheets that said “not applicable” over and over again. No experimentation with drugs. No run ins with the law. No DUIs. No affairs. No tricky finances. No secret babies. No proverbial dead bodies. “Huh. We don’t see this often.”

 

“Not from a male judge. It’s the women who are perfect.”

 

“Hopefully he’s as easy to manage as this was.” Mike shut Tom’s binder with a quick snap.

 

Winters snorted. “That was a shitshow to assemble, Lucciano. No one believes that’s all there is to Judge Brewer. You might be in for a surprise with this one. Keep your eyes open.”

 

“Will do.” Mike filed Tom’s binder on the shelf over his file cabinet. He turned back to his computer, to the recent threat briefing, and pushed Judge Tom Brewer from his mind.

 

* * *

 

“Your Honor?” Mike waited a polite ten and a half minutes after Tom Brewer, newest federal judge to the DC bench, began his first day. He stood in the doorway to Tom’s chambers, waiting.

 

Tom was circling his tiny office, running one hand over the polished Cherrywood desk. His eyes bounced over the empty bookcases behind the desk, the wood paneled walls, the bare floor. Was he mentally decorating? Planning to put his mark on the office? Preparing to order brand new everything? How difficult was Judge Tom Brewer going to be? Mike could foretell the entire future in the next minute.

 

Tom turned to Mike, smiling ear to ear. “Hi, sorry, I didn’t see you there. Please, come in.” He beckoned Mike into his office and waved him to one of the leather club chairs in front of the bare cherrywood desk. “This is amazing. Just amazing.” Tom leaned one hip against his desk and gazed at his office again.

 

He wasn’t redecorating. He was admiring. Taking in the tiny walls and the wood paneling with all of its nail holes, the scuffed floorboards, the cherrywood desk with the worn spots on the corners. Tom looked at his new office like he’d walked into a surprise party.

 

Mike almost didn’t want to interrupt Tom Brewer’s boyish adoration of his new space. “Your Honor, welcome to the DC federal bench.” 

 

Tom’s full-watt smile turned to Mike. He chuckled, almost giddy-like, under his breath. “I don’t think I’ll ever be used to this.”

 

Damn it, this was cute. Mike had never dealt with a judge who was adorable before. They were arrogant, uppity, entitled, or far, far too busy for the mere mortals around them. They never took the time to indulge in the moment, grin with excitement over their new office, or giggle, embarrassed and thrilled at the same time.

 

This was exactly the kind of guy that would have a completely boring background investigation. Maybe Tom Brewer had been too busy aw-shucksing his way through life to get into trouble.

 

Thought, it would have been easy for him to fall into a love affair. He probably had to fend off attractions and invites for dates from all the ladies. Tom Brewer was attractive, in that career-DC way. A politician’s patrician face, dark hair combed to the side, a body made for a slender suit. He had kind eyes, though, and that stood out. In the ocean of DC politics, the eyes said it all about the person. Hard eyes, cold eyed, lying eyes, dead eyes. They were a dime a dozen. But, kind eyes? Those were special.

 

He smiled back at Tom. So far, awesome. Judge Tom Brewer seemed like a decent guy. This should be an easy assignment, at least as far as personality went. There would be hard cases, and there would be threats – there always was, with everyone – but if Tom Brewer was as awesome professionally as he was personally, working with him would be a breeze.

 

“Your Honor, I am Inspector Mike Lucciano, Deputy US Marshal, and I am in charge of your security here at the courthouse. Are you ready for your first security briefing?”

 

* * *

 

Tom

 

“Are you ready for your first security briefing?”

 

Jesus, he was going to be spending more time with this man? Inspector Mike Lucciano, Deputy US Marshal?

 

His mouth was dry. His tongue was heavy. He glanced back to his bare bookshelves, trying to recapture the awe he’d felt striding into his very own judge’s chambers. Him, a judge! Unbelievable. Inconceivable. His heart had beat too fast, a pitter patter that left him breathless as he circled the desk.

 

And then a man had appeared at his doorway.

 

Tall. Almost six feet. Muscular. He filled out his suit in all the right ways. Thick shoulders. Trim hips.

 

Blue eyes, the color of a perfect September sky. Golden blond hair, combed into a swept and carefree pompadour, like waves of sand tumbling toward an ocean. Dimples in his cheeks when he smiled.

 

His suit was too stylish for DC. On the slender, form-fitting side, like the Europeans liked it, and a lighter blue than what crammed the halls of bureaucracy in the federal government. The fabric clung close to his legs, almost curving around the shape of his muscles.

 

His heart pitter-pattered for a whole different reason.

 

Damn it, stop. He’d put this away, long, long ago. He’d stopped seeing men who could take his breath away, had stopped looking for men who burned the blood in his veins. He’d built a safe world at the United States Attorney’s office, tunnel-visioned on his professional life. There was no one who made his heart go crazy, made his palms sweat until he thought beads would drip from his fingertips.

 

Tom folded his arms, clenching his sweaty palms in the bunched fabric at his elbows.

 

New job. New role. New people in his life. He’d done this before, built up his walls and shored up his barricades. He would do so again. Twenty-four years he’d kept his own secret, and look at the life he’d managed to build. If that wasn’t proof that he’d done the right thing, made the right choice, then he didn’t know what was.

 

He turned back to Mike, his polite smile pasted on his face. “Yes, Deputy Marshal— Inspector—Uh…”

 

“Inspector is the correct title, Your Honor. But, please. You’re more than welcome to call me Mike.”

 

There was that smile again. Tom’s bones turned to jelly, and a thousand fire ants seemed to be racing up the insides of his skin. He nodded, tried to smile, and scooted the chair beside the desk a little farther away from Mike. Tried to hide it as he pretended to turn the chair more to face him. Was this better or worse? He wasn’t next to Mike, but now he was looking right at him, looking right at a man that could have stepped out of his fantasies, out of his deepest, deepest dreams.

 

Maybe Mike would be an asshole. That would be perfect, actually. If Mike was an asshole, then he’d be cured of his fascination, lickety split.

 

God, he wanted to lick Mike’s chest—

 

Jesus. Stop. Stop.

 

Mike passed over a binder with another heart-melting smile. The front read: Security Procedures for Judges.

 

“This is your security manual. Please, Your Honor, take the time to read it. I know it’s dry, but the procedures in here are important. My job is to keep you and your courtroom safe and secure at all times. Mostly, this will be behind the scenes for you. I will be monitoring all threats made against the bench, and if any come specifically against you. I’ll investigate any and all threats made to ensure your complete safety. Also, for any high-risk trial that you preside over, I will be creating a security plan for both your protection and for the courtroom during the trial.”

 

“I used to see Villegas, and another guy before him, when I was an AUSA.”

 

Mike nodded. “Villegas is the other Inspector here. Before him, it was Edwards. We all have slightly different styles to our protections. I’m a little more hands-on than Villegas. I like to be thorough. Better safe than sorry.”

 

Shit.

 

“But, don’t worry, Your Honor. Your first year or two, you shouldn’t get very many high-risk trials. The other judges are figuring out which cases to offload to you to build your book. Unfortunately, you might be stuck with the boring ones.” Mike winked. “Which means you definitely won’t be seeing me at all.”

 

Shit, shit.

 

Tom chuckled, almost breathless. Mike wasn’t an asshole. He was funny, and kind, and seemed oh-so-competent. Tom had always had a weak spot for people who were deliciously smart. And who made him laugh.

 

If he got a load of boring cases, then he wouldn’t be seeing Mike, though.

 

That was good. He could build his walls higher, take time to re-center himself. Dig a deeper ditch around his heart and soul’s hideout.

 

Mike spoke some more, rehashing courthouse security procedures, which he already knew, and going over the special judges-only information he needed to know now. He listened, nodded along, and watched Mike’s Adam’s apple work up and down, watched the vein on the side of his neck slowly pulse.

 

“If you have any questions, Your Honor, my office is right down the hall. I’m here if you need anything. Please, read your manual. If you need something to put you to sleep, that’s the thing.” Mike grinned.

 

“I will read it. I promise.” Tom stood and held out his hand. It only trembled slightly.

 

Mike didn’t seem to notice. He clasped Tom in a firm handshake, pumped once, and then started for the door.

 

The zing from Mike’s touch went from the bottom of Tom’s feet to the tips of his hair. Handshakes were the only touches he allowed himself with another man. The only male contact he ever received. Fingers on the back of his hand, a warm palm resting in his own. He closed his eyes, exhaling softly. Mike’s touch, as brief as it had been, was like lightning.

 

“Your Honor?”

 

His eyes snapped open. Mike was waiting in the doorway, his perfect body cased in light from the hall. His golden hair gleamed, and his blue eyes sparkled, laughter and gentleness mixing in their glow.

 

“Welcome, again, to the DC federal bench. Congratulations. I think you’re going to do great here.” Mike smiled again and disappeared down the hallway.

 

Shit.

 

Tom turned away from the door and gripped the edge of his desk. He closed his eyes and breathed, in and out, slowly.

 

In his mind, he imagined himself putting bricks up, stacking them higher, building his wall taller, stronger. Building his wall against the man with the perfect smile and beautiful eyes.

 

Building his wall against Mike.

 


Timestamp: One year prior to Hush, when Mike and Tom first meet.