Author's note: I don't own them. Rated T because of the occasional rough language and themes of violence that seem to be inherent with MI.

It occurs to William Brandt, as he pockets the phone and walks away from Ethan Hunt at the wharfside bar, that he should be angry.

Or at the very least, feel manipulated. After all, when you've carried the guilt of the death of the wife of a former IMF agent for 10 months, nine days and 21 hours – and you've just been told that you are, in fact, not responsible for her death, and, in fact, she isn't dead at all – you wonder why no one could take the time to at least say, "You know, we can't tell you WHY, but don't worry about it."

Brandt should be pissed as hell that he's carried around this 100-pound gorilla on his shoulders for close to a year, but instead, all he feels is relief. That relief is so strong that he feels almost giddy, so much so that he's tempted to find a bar, have a beer and kick his feet up and just bask in it for a little while. Let it soak into all the raw edges that have formed over the last year and wash them gently away, leaving something approaching healing in its wake.

It's not his fault – and it never was. Brandt, for a few glorious moments – at least until he presses play on the phone in his pocket and finds out what his mission is, since he is going to choose to accept it – is burden-free.

"And you're just an 'analyst.'"

He's been in the CIA for 15 years, and a member of IMF for 10 of those, and when he walked away from the responsibility of a team 10 months and nine days ago, he thought he'd never be able to deal with a life or death situation again. Hell, he would've walked straight out the door and never looked back, but Secretary Davidson had seen his ability at sifting through hundreds of pages of data and finding the one salient point – and grabbed him and put him to work as an analyst.

And Brandt had been willing to play along and do the job, just so long as he never had to look another team in the face and say that he'd failed. At least, he thought he'd been willing to do that, until Davidson had hauled his ass out of the office in Langley and told him to pack a bag for a trip to Russia. Brandt had been safe in thinking he was just along for the ride with the Secretary accepting one in a long line of awards – right up until the point where the man had pulled him out of cocktail reception, dragged him into the back of an SUV and relayed the two words everyone in IMF feared hearing.

Ghost Protocol. It meant everyone in the field – and being the secretary's chief analyst, Brandt knew just how many that could be on a given day – was being left to wherever the wind would scatter them. Frankly, it scared the fuck out of Brandt in a way that nothing on the job ever could – because the job, for all of its insanity and uncertainty, was, in fact, a job. Maybe the only job Brandt had ever considered doing.

And that job, as quickly as it took to whip out his Glock and empty a clip into the enemy, was gone. Simple, irrevocably, gone. He'd sat in the back of the SUV and just wondered what the fuck he and every other IMF agent could or would do, when the driver suddenly pulled the vehicle to the side of the road. A man opened the door, dropped wearily into the seat across from them – and Brandt found himself face-to-face with the one person he'd hoped he'd never have to face again in his life.

One Mr. Ethan Hunt. Brandt could barely bring himself to look Hunt in the eye, much less extend his hand.

"The only thing that functioned properly on that mission was this team."

Not that Ethan had accepted it. Brandt feels the smile slowly take grip on his face when he remembers that first meeting. Nothing about it had gone to form, from Hunt asking for a pen to the crude sketch of Cobalt on the man's palm to the secretary suggesting Hunt attack them – at least enough to make it believable – and escape. Brandt barely had time to get a really, really bad feeling about the whole plan, watch Davidson hand Hunt a waterproof drive, contemplate just how much pain Hunt could inflict on him if he chose to – and then his whole world exploded in a rolling expanse of a sudden explosion and gunfire.

From there, whether he'd wanted to be back in the field or not, he WAS. Brandt didn't trust his own field instincts enough at that point to lead him to clean restroom, much less safety, so he shrugged his shoulders – and followed Ethan Hunt's instincts instead.

Followed him through the cold dark of the Moskva River, followed him – freezing his ass off, he might add, in cold, dank water that wanted to drown him and wasn't that just not how he'd expected to be spending the night – into a train depot, into a train car headed God only knew where and followed him right into a regular clusterfuck of an IMF mission. Hunt had given him – given all of them – an out, but when he'd opened his mouth to deny his place with the cozy little group, he'd simply shut his mouth without so much as letting out a squeak.

He'd gotten on the plane to Dubai and followed Hunt's instincts until his own had kicked into high gear – FINALLY kicked into high gear – in the Burj Hotel. He managed to hold his own, too, as much as his brain had gone, "oh, HELL no" and wanted to run screaming into the night.

And then he and Hunt and Jane and Benji had, improbably, gotten past the doubts and the question marks and the consequences of failure and somehow gotten the job done. IMF has saved the world many times over, but Brandt can't recall the last time he'd felt so completely and totally drained after a mission – not to mention bruised, battered and physically rocked to the point where everyone had spent the night in hospital, not just Jane and Ethan in surgery, but Benji and Brandt under observation as well.

They'd had each others' backs. They'd protected one another – and still did. Even walking down to the wharf tonight, Brandt had found himself scanning the crowd, looking for potential targets – potential threats. Judging by the way Benji's eyes had skipped continuously over the crowd, he'd been doing the same thing. And Jane … Jane had just let a hand rest on her sidearm, the holster already open and the safety off.

And when they'd sat down at the table, watching the infamous Luther Stickell flip the equally infamous Ethan Hunt the bird and talk mysteriously about Kandahar, Brandt had, for a long moment, felt lost in the wind. These people – this team – they couldn't accept him, could they? It all came rushing back in an instant, the guilt and the fear and the failure, and he knew, he just knew, that he would walk away rather than put another life at risk, rather than risk someone else fucking dying on his watch, with their blood on his hands.

He'd continued to think that – right up until the point where Hunt had pointed asked him how, exactly, he was certain that Julia Meade was, in fact, dead. And with dawning realization, Brandt could accept that for the last 11 months, his perception of the situation had been beyond screwed up. It wasn't that Brandt had failed at the job. It had been that the job hadn't been his to fail at.

Wait a minute...what was it that Hunt had said to him?

"It wasn't your job to protect her, Brandt. It's mine."

It occurs to Brandt that, while he has spent the better part of 11 months kicking himself for a mission gone wrong, that perhaps Hunt has been kicking himself harder. After all, Julia Meade isn't actually dead, but everything that Hunt had to have wanted died on the day that his wife was taken, brutalized and, until now, presumed dead. Brandt knows at least this: Hunt loved the woman enough to walk away from IMF missions and consider retiring. There weren't too many living legends in IMF – the agents tended not to survive long enough to get that far – but Hunt was one of them.

Hunt'd had it all, and he'd been forced to walk away from the woman he loved. He'd gone and landed himself in jail with no real idea of when or even if he'd ever get out, all on the hope they'd be able to get a bead on perhaps the craziest threat the world had faced since Hitler.

Tracking down crazy was an IMF specialty. And when someone like Ethan Hunt put together a team, those teams had better find a way to work together and get the job done.

Suddenly, Brandt's mind hits a stunning realization, and he stops dead in his tracks, so quickly that a woman walking behind him trips on his heel and almost goes flying. On autopilot, he grabs her elbow and keeps her on her feet, all the time still lost in one simple, glowing realization.

In no uncertain terms, Ethan Hunt HAS put together a new IMF team, and in spite of everything – or maybe because of it – Hunt wants William Brandt on that team. Insecurities, inadequacies and all. In fact, given that Hunt hasn't had a team for more than five years, Brandt should maybe feel just a little bit honored.

What the hell? He's not Ethan Hunt. And he'd never want to be. The man has seen too much in the last 15 years – the death of his original IMF team, the betrayal of his former boss, the death of too many good friends, women and agents to keep track of – for Brandt to ever be envious. He's had enough on his mind with just the death of an asset, who, in fact, isn't really dead.

So yeah, he's not Ethan Hunt. The man is a special brand of crazy only IMF can breed. But he IS William Brandt, and as Hunt has apparently taken great strides to point out, that's just fine.

And maybe, as he feels the weight of the phone in his pocket and contemplates where he can go to listen to the prerecorded message, being William Brandt isn't as awful as it seemed eight weeks – or even eight hours or eight minutes – ago.