Notes: Super super sorry for the delay. It's been a whirlwind, but I'm glad this is finally out. Hope you all are safe in 2020. 3 Chapter Notes: This was started before Fallout came out and just to keep things simple, especially where Julia is concerned, it will continue that way. If I ever get around to it, it might be included in a follow up fic, but for now this takes place before Fallout.
Chapter Three: Yatta (The State of Joy After You have Accomplished a Task)
Isolation was better than heartbreak, than grief.
That was what he would tell the new recruits. To succeed, the mission was your life now. Because the moment you assumed you could do more than that, it was a short set of stairs to it all falling apart.
Few listened, seeing him as a successful example rather than a warning sign. That was their lesson to learn, he could only speak from experience. Most didn't understand that survival did not equal success, not by a long shot.
The body in his arms added to the list of why isolation was preferable.
Brandt had been avoiding him.
He knew it was for the best. Their history was complicated; between his lying about Julia's demise and him taking advantage of Brandt's guilt over it, it was obvious both could manage a working relationship only on the best days. Somewhere between Dubai and Morocco, Brandt had stopped communicating and he had let him. Working through the events of the train required a depth of emotional vulnerability Ethan wasn't sure he had anymore, not since Julia had died as his wife.
Yet when the standard period of three hours without contact passed and Will's status changed from active to potential MIA, he did not hesitate to ask for the assignment. The red flag for immediate extraction wouldn't come for ten more hours, but three hours meant a serious warning when it came to Brandt. Considering he, the king of improvisation was asking rather than doing, Secretary Hunley let him off without any need for explanation.
The slough of countryside that had been Brandt's last location was the thing of nightmares to new recruits. No contact with IMF support, no intel on the situation other than the lack of an agent, and the visibility that made the worse cataract patients appreciate their eyesight. Ethan on the other hand, appreciated being separated from the barrage of messages from Jane and Benji who aggressively tried to help from afar.
Going on nine hours without contact, he drove past the smoldering house of the protected diplomat. Knowing the river was the best path he had to follow Brandt, who would have used it to disguise his footprints, he followed where he would have gone. Because while he and Brandt differed in many ways, they were very similar in escaping enemies.
It was the bridge, which would have been perfect for rest and assessing the situation that had him abandon the car. After confirming that the bridge's tunnel was empty, he continued onto shore watching for movement. With the raging storm, he assumed enemies were nearby. Staying alert, he moved with the intent to extract Brandt and figure out what came after once they were both out of the rain.
Sounds of exertion and pain reached his ears right before he was on top of the brawling agents. In normal conditions his awareness would have been more keen, but he focused on the fight in front of him. Brandt's figure was striking and clearly defined against the occasional lighting flashes. Had it been a fair fight, it would already be over, but he could tell the other man was waning.
It would be hard to insert himself into the fight at this point. There was no way for Brandt to know who he was and the rain roared in a way that made calling out to him impossible. The clearest option was to even the playing field with the least amount of risk.
As if gift wrapped, the larger of the enemy agents stumbled back due to a well timed hit to the temple. That coupled with them cradling their arm left Hunt an easy opening to exploit. Tightly constricting his arm around their throat, the agent was immobilised in moments. Letting the body fall to the ground, Ethan turned his attention back to the fight.
It was telling how tired Will was in how he didn't notice the other fighter was gone. His sole focus was on the woman, who squirmed in the dirt as she was deprived of oxygen. Ethan slowly approached the scene, even as his mission shakily stood. The man seemed lost, unsure and reacted dramatically when Ethan entered his vision.
This was to be expected, Ethan thought, as he opened his arms in a welcoming, non threatening stance. Brandt still seemed unsure, even as he lost his footing and fell to support himself on a nearby tree. The older man wished Brandt could hear him or see him with clarity. Even with their tattered channel of communication, he was sure the man would still be relieved to know that he no longer had to be on guard.
Or so he hoped, as he touched Will's shoulder.
The punch that came was unexpected, but not undeserved. In terms of sucker punches it was nowhere near the worst he had ever had, though his jaw still registered the pain. It was still minor in comparison to watching any tension leave the man next to him and dead weight fall into his arms.
Over his career he had lost whole teams, he had lost friends and after all this time it still wasn't any easier. The reality was that there was always the potential to lose people and he had learned to compartmentalize to accomplish the mission.
Tucking the worry away, he quickly checked over the man, noting knife wounds in the shoulder and upper thigh. He checked the man's pulse, relieved to find it steady.
Hoisting Brandt over his shoulder, he moved steadily but quickly up the hill. The rain had abated, however was careful to avoid slipping in the mud. He had no doubt that there were potential reinforcements inbound, however his focus remained on the wounds leaking blood into his clothing. He laid the man across the backseat to reduce jostling his wounds.
On the trip to where he was now, Hunt had considered everything he wanted to say and what needed to be said. Stealing a glance into the backseat, at the limp body moving in time with bumps in the road, Ethan felt regret rise in him. Looking back to the road, his speed increased as he refocused on his mission.
In the seat beside him, the phone that had formerly not had signal buzzed issently, ignored and forgotten.
Jane growled as the phone went to voicemail for the umpteeth time.
"I'm going to take that as our esteemed leader is still not gracing us with his presence." The english techie mused, refreshing for news of the explosion and subsequent fire again.
"Nope!" She took three steps forward, turned and walked back stopping just short of his setup. The movement did not quell her rising irritation, though it was meant to, which had to mean something.
Benji's face had clear signs of sleep deprivation, a sign he was meant to go to bed after his last mission, but had been unable to knowing Will's mission had gone sideways. He sipped his non caffeinated tea, as he was alternating between it and coffee to avoid giving himself the jitters. "It's Ethan, I'm sure he's fine."
She gave him a questioning stare. "We don't know that."
He turned his full attention to her rather than the screen, "What, because of that tiff they have? Ethan can still be professional."
"Can he though?" Jane bit out, obviously personally affected by lack of camaraderie between the two. "Ethan's version of professional is calculated and emotionally aloof. Brandt won't respond well."
At some point after Morocco, after Benji had noted a change in Will, she had reached out for drinks. Rarely did she see any of them, with her solo assignments taking up most of her time. But she made an exception for them, especially Brandt knowing their mutual guilt over not being able to save people. In the beginning it had been pleasant, but four drinks in he became distressed and absent in a way she knew from looking in a mirror.
It had all come spilling out with minimal prodding. She had the toolkit to drag it out of him, but Will was a friend. And as her friend, he knew she could be trusted. Jane had walked away from the night out with rage and a promise to not interfere. Benji only knew due to offhand comments from Ethan and venting from her, with him connecting the dots. Both were sworn to secrecy by Brandt, though it did little to calm their frustration with the situation.
"They are in the same square mile and eventually will have to interact. It's a start." Benji retorted, although conceding she made good points.
"Better than locking them in an interrogation room together." She muttered, opening her phone to call again.
Benji nodded, checking IMF servers for updates. Still, he knew that was an option, but he hoped that it wouldn't have to come to that.
The man on the other end of the phone, who was still ignoring its existence, shifted slightly in his chair. While the adrenaline had slowed since arriving at the hospital, his thoughts kept him awake.
Words came to mind of what he should say, how he should say it. Many people would practice or murmur to themselves. He kept silent, waiting as the time ticked by.
This confessional could have been done while the other man was unconscious. It would have been easier to send someone else as rescue, to leave him in the medical bay to wake up alone. But Ethan was many things, a coward not one of them. So he volunteered and stayed, using his charm to obtain one of the few private rooms in the small hospital. There he waited, mulling his thoughts and coming to conclusions that needed to be shared.
It didn't take long before movement drew him closer to the bedside. Eyes opened, scanning the room while blinking to reduce any grogginess. After clearing the room, like a good agent, they settled on him.
It had been too long Ethan thought, since he had looked the man in the eye. Since Dubai, the eyes had always been downturned or avoidant. Now they were fixed, almost searching for a sign of deception. As though he was not there. Hunt could not put a word to it, but at the same time he didn't need to.
They stared at him as he looked had come back with the warm blanket and being out of the elements, but the vivid blue green eyes were still sharp. They were as distinct as before when they drew in Julia.
Brandt said nothing.
Neither did he, savoring the long pause before the inevitable conversation he was determined to have. He owed Brandt that much. After a moment, Brandt's eyes looked to the still blossoming bruise on his jaw.
"You almost foiled your own rescue attempt." He murmured, meaning it as something between a joke and an explanation. A small chuckle came with a grin as he tried to lighten the atmosphere.
Brandt loosely mirrored him, before coughing due to his dry and irritated throat. Ethan grabbed the water glass nearby, knowing it would be needed. He leaned in to allow the man to drink, noticing twitching hands.
Later, he and Brandt would recount to the others that the exhaustion led to the broadcasting of the attack. In reality, Ethan was just lucky. That and he was expecting some form of anger. He had muddied the water of their relationship with his actions, he was be foolish to expect a lack of retaliation. The sucker punch didn't count if Brandt was aiming for an enemy.
Ethan squeezed the wrist he held gently, but firmly. The goal of the punch, his bruised cheek was grateful. Aiming for the spot rather than a more sensitive throat showcased Brandt's rarely seen vindicitiness.
The eyes were glaring at him now, the face irritated with the resistance. He squeezed again, before releasing the hold and moving slightly away. Brandt could still strike, but as he watched the anger drain into resignation, Ethan knew there wouldn't be another attempt. While unhappy about the outcome, the other man seemed to accept it, if begrudgingly.
Another beat passed and the wheels turning in Brandt's head were almost audible. For the moment he was stuck until he was healed enough to move. While his injuries were minor in comparison to most of the situations they were in, downtime was still required. He had updated the Secretary who had them both on standby for whatever time was needed. Knowing all of this, Ethan waited.
He could check his phone, pretend to take a call. He could also call the nurses now that the patient was awake. Both would be welcome distractions from the conversation that needed to happen. But he had already put enough of a gap between then and done nothing to slow the expansion of it. They deserved nothing but the other's full attention. The older man knew he was responsible for a majority of it and he was committed to staying for once. It would be easy to make a reason to leave, but Will deserved better.
So he waited, his full attention focused.
Brandt grimaced, having come to a similar conclusion. "Is the asset safe?"
Internally, Hunt was tempted to grin. No matter rain or shine or personal problems, it was always business with Will. It was one of the things he and the agency appreciated about it. It was an easy topic that would have them talking, a toe in the pool before diving in.
He also had the patience to see it through, so he granted Brandt the temporary reprieve. "The asset was retrieved from the safe room and transported per the contingency plan. Partial shock had set in, but she was also very chatty about how her escort had fended off an attacker with her high heel. Very innovative of you I must say."
The last part added humor to his tone, trying to deescalate the situation further. That and he knew that it was Jane's doing for the technique. If said agent was not currently in line to jump down his throat, he would have been happy to share the news. Ethan hoped it would lead to banter between him and the other man, but he didn't consider himself that lucky.
"Says the man that used a pencil." Ethan relaxed, hearing the snark from the other man. It was subdued, but he could still hear it. Maybe this wouldn't be as impossible as he thought.
"That is an agency myth, that was someone else." He retorted, knowing exactly who the other man was that had performed the feat. Though he would never admit it, he was glad their paths would never cross.
The other man's eyes blinked before rolling, obviously not satisfied with the answer. His reply said as much, the tired man putting up a good fight. "But you've practiced with it as a weapon, so it's not that far fetched."
He would be a liar if he tried to counter that point. He was unphased that Brandt knew his training schedule despite how unpredictable it was. The other man had been keeping his distance, not lost his touch for details.
"Section 34: An agent must be practical in the field." Despite his playful tone Ethan instantly regretted his words, as his weary cohort snapped to attention. Any ease that had entered the room was sucked out leaving the atmosphere icy and distant. In attempting to ease them into conversation, he had forgotten to look for land mines.
Bringing up practicality to a man who relished it, when he was the agent most likely to avoid it to accomplish a mission was a mistake. Ethan knew a majority of his actions were nowhere near the definition, sometimes he would even pride himself on it. But he was also impulsive which had partially led them to where they were now. So incredibly impulsive that he was damn good at his job, but at the cost of getting those around him injured or killed. Or in the case of Julia, ripped from his life entirely.
The occupant of the hospital bed stilled, giving Hunt a focused but unreadable expression. In the time waiting in the hospital he had considered reaching this point, how careful he would need to be to avoid triggering a detonation in the normally collected agent.
Lightly, he proceeded with common ground and hoped Brandt would engage. "The device was triggered, you secured the asset before exiting the estate to draw away the enemy agents correct?"
Brandt could be reprimanded for refusing the debrief since he was the man's senior officer. But Ethan was unconcerned knowing that the value of mission reports outweighed the other man's anger.
"Correct. Despite the poor conditions two agents followed me for over five miles. I suffered a technical malfunction which did not allow for contact with IMF. Not that anyone would have answered an analyst, Sir." The words were tight and required no clarification, the other man staring straight at him. If he was prone to it, he would be shifting in his seat. It was almost as though he was speaking with a robot who was capable of slight amounts of emotion, which was all malice directed at him. The digs at Brandt's former title along with their repeated non-communication weighed heavily on the conversation and Ethan's shoulders.
In the back of his mind he commended Brandt for his restraint. Ethan knew he deserved much more than that. He also knew he was stalling trying to find the best position in which to rip off the bandaid. Clearing his throat, he tried to prove Jane wrong that he was not avoiding a topic. "Agent I-"
Another wrong move, the impersonal title that had just come from memory. This was not an agent in front of him and if he could take it back he would in a heartbeat.
But the dam had already broken, the still face morphing into furrowed eyebrows and curled lips. "Thinking practically, I led them on a wild goose chase through multiple feet of water before laying out a trap to surprise them before they caught me. In my practicality, I engaged with both at the same time. I suffered two knife wounds, minor injuries by your standards and won. I then punched Senior Agent Hunt in the face before passing out from my injuries. Sir."
"Brandt, please just -" Ethan tried to interject, feeling the edge of the cliff below his feet. Had it always been this close? Was he just deceiving himself before that it wasn't this bad? They were the same distance physically apart but it seemed so far now. He had let Julia go which had crushed him, but this was worse in that he actively saw this person slipping through his fingers.
"Speaking of practicality, do you want to talk about Casablanca when you drove at extreme speeds with potential brain damage? Or hanging outside of a cargo plane? Or when you drove a car off a sheer cliff in Mumbai?" Brandt wasn't shouting, knowing that it would draw the nurses. But the anger was so present it was like standing near a volcano about the erupt.
"It was for the sake of -" He started to retort, because he knew that his choices were foolhardy and rash. One day they would lead to his death likely sooner than later. He had accepted this knowing that the more he did, the less that others had to do. The more risk he took the less others had to suffer. Most people saw him as an egomaniac but in truth many things took precedence over him, the facade just a shield from people looking too closely.
The other man was a tense spring, about ready to rise out of the bed despite his fresh injuries. His tone was deep and unforgiving having tapped into deep seated resentment. "The sake of what Agent Hunt? Your pride, ego or just because you have a deathwish? Because it surely isn't for the mission, it hasn't been for a while."
The comment stung, a rhetorical knife in his side that threatened to unpack all of his deep seated training proved that if you practiced and believed something long enough it would stick, so his claim that it was for the mission was true in his mind. But Brandt always had a point and had come to the conclusion that was in Hunt's bones, the face of the IMF was tired.
Almost on cue his neck reminded him he had been sitting on the edge of his seat for going on too long. His body was strong but the years still affected him on top of his long list of past injuries.
The other man continued railing at him, as though if he stopped he would never get another chance. "Your actions are never practical and it is an insult for you to even think you can claim that they are. You do whatever you please never stopping to think of how it affects others or me -"
"I'm sorry Will." Ethan breathed softly, but it was loud enough to cut off any further words from the other man. The eyes that had been daggers softened seeing how his shoulders dropped.
Hunt tried to phrase his next words carefully, but they seemed to just spill out because if they did not come out now it was unsure if they ever would. "When Julia left my life, I let go of a lot of things. Like knowing that someone would be thinking of me outside of a work capacity. I let go of those things because I still wanted our memories and if I tried to replace her it would replace them. "
He took another breath, trying to ignore the eyes on him before he lost his nerve. He wished he had scanned the room for bugs, knowing that as he went on more of his armor would be penetrable. But Will deserved the transparency.
His heart throbbed as the next words came out, it was still a fresh bloody wound after all this time. "I miss her everyday."
Brandt leaned forward towards him, his hand twitching as though he wanted to reach out, say something. Being so close to them during his detail, the other man had seen them live their life and love eachother deeply. It was likely evident how deep the cut went from his tone, but he wanted to break the half truths that they normally told. No more miscommunications, he told himself.
"Without her, you're right. I am reckless and pretending that I have a plan for everything. Most of the time I survive by the skin of my teeth, but the mission is complete. I gave her up to ensure her safety and to ensure the world was safe. Casablanca, Dubai, all of my missions are so risky that most senior teams cannot fathom being assigned to them. I get them done to make sure that my actions are worth it in the end, that life without her is worth it." He paused, the hands before him shaking thinking of the first day, month, year without her. It had been excruciating to the point of desolation. His gaze had shifted to the edge of the bed at some point, the other man's gaze too much to bear. From his peripheral he saw movement, another hand reaching to his. Due to the distance it barely grazed his fingertips and yet it reminded him of his guilt. Despite his anger Will was still reaching out to him, a comfort that he didn't deserve.
Pulling his hands back, he straightened in his seat to meet the other man's eyes. This part he had practiced over and over, never coming to a final product that made him feel that their relationship could be smoothed over. However he was willing to try his best.
Will's eyes were full, searching for a connection. Despite the well worded practice failing him, he continued. "I'm sorry I brought you into it, made you feel as though you needed to worry about me. Moscow was a mistake on my part and everything that has come after it falls on my shoulders. It led us here and-"
"What happened in Moscow?"
Ethan paused, the other man still searching for his reaction. The question was one that he had been mulling himself before, during, and after the event.
"I violated the chain of command and your personal space right after a high stress situation." He stated factually, thinking about how it had not been included with his mission report. It had also been scrubbed from the train car's internal logs.
"Ethan, you kissed me." The other man saying it aloud took him back to the bunk room, the cool air when he entered the room. If he could go back in time, he wasn't sure he would have been able to stop himself. At the time it had been so grounding, a moment of Julia among the chaos. That knowledge caused his shoulders to bow. Undeterred, Brandt continued. "Why?"
"You reminded me of someone we knew in Croatia. This person was dear to us and the intimacy gave me another moment with her. In my mind it made sense and I am so sorry I took advantage of the situation." There was so much more he could say, but he didn't want it to turn into a sob story. He was there to tell Brandt it was okay to let him go, to stop worrying. To leave his mistake in the past.
The next words came out slow, calculated to the point that it distracted him from his thinking. He tilted his head, hearing caution in Brandt's voice. "This person was romantic to you?"
"In a way, somehow I was able to convince Julia he was off limits." His smile was small and brief as he thought of their many conversations about it. She was unhappy with the prospect but had accepted it to an extent.
The other man paused, as though a puzzle piece had just clicked into place. "Just Croatia?"
His own piece slid and confirmed what he had suspected. The two were the same and while that did not diminish his actions, it illuminated more than Brandt could ever say about why he cared. "Before then but Croatia was when I had to convince her not to invite you in the house."
He said the words softly with a warmness remembering the past, but Brandt still sputtered with a slight smattering of pink in his cheeks. The tone of the room, which had been filled with tension, the remorse now held sentimentality.
After a moment to adjust to the new information, Brandt seemed to consider his new view of their shared past. A smirk crept it's way onto the man's face, reminding him of the person from the past with the familiar playful tone. "It's good to know that's mutual."
Ethan then was the one to have his mouth nearly fall open, the consideration never having crossed his mind. Perhaps he had been so caught up in compartmentalizing his relationships he hadn't considered how others would interact. The distance between them shrunk as he relaxed from his position, their hands meeting at the edge of the bed.
His disbelief must have been audible, as Will spoke again. "It was hard to let you both go and part of my guilt was thinking how a less conflicted team lead would have handled the situation."
"It wasn't your fault." Ethan retorted softly, knowing that the guilt had been from a partial story that the couple had been privy to.
The other man's grip tightened for a moment, then relaxed as if to signal that he knew. He knew but in the past there was no way to know. And yet here they were.
"You two were too alluring for your own good." It was a soft joke, but it was a reprieve from the heavy conversation.
Ethan chuckled. "I'll let her know next time she was right."
"Is right." Will corrected, leading to a puzzled look on the older man's face. Their connected hands pulled him closer to the person that was relaxed, the stress drained from his body now that the gap between them was bridged. Ethan was pulled closer, out of his seat to be leaned over the bed.
"If you remember, I kissed you back." Their foreheads were together now, a closeness that Ethan relished after continued isolation. His eyes had closed at some point, but knowing the other person was right there had the effect of security on someone that normally existed without it.
His heart had sped up, unsure of the next move. Rarely was he in this position, but the other man saved him from his wavering thoughts. "Don't push me away this time."
The thought of undoing all this progress sent ice through Hunt's veins, losing another grounding force, something that could send him into another reckless campaign. He had a chance here to have something outside of work, outside of his impossible tasks. This was different from Julia, Brandt knew the risks of their profession. There was potential for more if he didn't squander it.
Slowly, to give the man a chance to punch him if he was somehow mistaken, he leaned in for another kiss. I'll try he said, making the contact soft and delicate. Hands cradled his face as the conflicted emotions rose as a response, knowing that he was in fact letting Julia go now.
A tear rolled down in response to the emotion, wiped away by the other's hand. It was a new start for both of them, a benefit to enhance their lives. Warmth seeped into his old bones knowing that tomorrow would bring something new outside of his loneliness.
Will kissed back, agreeing to that shared tomorrow.