She loves him, there’s no doubt about this. Never was. Never will be.
He kicked Tommy Monroe’s shin for her after Tommy had pulled her ponytail and made her cry when she was seven. He helped her pass math in 9th grade when nothing seemed to make sense and Marc didn’t ask her to the prom. He didn’t take the blame for Mom’s dented car, but he stood by her when she finally confessed when she was 16.
She loved him when he told her the girls in college didn’t exactly interest him, and she loved him when he kissed her goodbye to move to Washington, D.C. for a boring desk job with the CIA.
She loves him, but she’s no fool.
They’re both back home for Thanksgiving and he already looks different. Sure, he still wears the same worn shirts from Penn State and laughs at the same jokes, but the way he handles the knife when he cuts the carrots reminds her of a documentary about outdoor survival training she once saw, and then there’s something in his eyes she can’t exactly pick out.
“You take care, Will,” she whispers in his ear before Dad drives her to the airport to go back to college.
Their parents know, she’s sure of it. Dad sometimes calls her to ask after Will and there’s this undercurrent of worry in his voice which he never quite manages to conceal. She tells him about the postcards Will sends because he’s old-fashioned like this. From time to time they’re sent from some obscure town like Leipzig or Semarang. Towns she’s never heard of, but he gave her an atlas the day she moved into her first dorm and she opens it every time one of these cards arrive. They never talk about it and there’s barely more than a “Hello Ellie, weather is shit. Love, Will” scribbled on the paper anyway, but she keeps every single one safely locked away in a box under her bed.
The next time she sees him he visits her unannounced and crashes at her place for a week. He looks terrible, with bruises marring the whole left side of his face and the way he moves she suspects a few broken ribs as well. It’s probably more his look than her promise to bake all the cakes her roommate wants for the rest of the semester that makes Anne leave them alone for the whole time. Will sleeps a lot, and Ellie can’t help but be scared for him.
She sits on the floor, leaning against her bed and tries to read a book for her Literature Theory Class when he wakes up again.
“Hi,” he says quietly, barely moving on the bed next to her, but she feels his breath against her right ear. “What are you reading?”
“Stuff … boring stuff,” she replies.
“I like boring,” he says.
“You don’t look like it,” she snaps and bites her lip. Whatever it is, they don’t talk about it. That’s one of the few rules she’s always complied with. “I’m sorry … ” she finally whispers and closes her eyes.
“No, I’m … Ellie.” He sighs and strokes her hair. “I shouldn’t have just come here.”
“Don’t be stupid,” she says and leans against his hand. “You can always come here. Just tell me … is … is your job always so … interesting?”
“No, really, it’s rather boring,” he says after a moment’s hesitation. She’s not sure if she believes him, but she wants to, so desperately she can taste it on her tongue.
“Promise,” he replies quietly and kisses the top of her head.
He’s gone the next day, and she doesn’t hear from him in over three months. She spends the first week of these months feeling sick to her stomach and nervous and sleeps with her cell in her hand. She has a few nightmares, even after Anne sits her down to tell her that no news is good news. She still sees stretches of his bruised skin when she closes her eyes, though.
It only stops when he finally calls her, and she can spend ten minutes yelling at him for being an asshole. He takes it with humor and apologizes, and she instantly forgives him because he’s her big brother and she loves him.
He makes an effort, after that, to stay more in touch with her. They talk once a week and every other month he drops by for a day or two, and Anne continues to be an awesome roommate and always finds another place to stay on these weekends. In the fall, Will starts teaching her a few self defense moves and after she’s gotten intimately acquainted with the hardwood floor several times she surprises Anne with a colorful, soft carpet. She also has to cause a bit of a heartbreak for Anne who thinks that Will is really cool and really hot and wonders if he’s single. Ellie doesn’t really have an answer to that last question, but she gently explains that if anything Will would be more interested in their classmates Phil or Jordan. Anne sighs, resigned, and eats another one of Ellie’s muffins.
Ellie meets Paul on a rainy Friday in an Italian restaurant. Will picks her up from her dorm and although he tries not to show it, he’s incredibly nervous. It’s adorable and if she wouldn’t feel for him she’d laugh. This is important, though. This is the first boyfriend of Will's she's ever going to meet.
“He’s a really nice guy,” she tells Will after they’ve eaten and he drives her home. Will has this quiet, relieved smile on his lips that she remembers from when he was still in school and passed a test with flying colors. “Where did you meet?”
“On a train,” he says, and after her disbelieving look, “Really, I’m not making this up.”
“So, you really think he’s a nice guy?”
“Of course. Otherwise I wouldn’t have behaved so nicely to him.” She rolls her eyes at him. “Are you taking him to meet mom and dad?”
“Probably later,” he says and she nods, happy for him.
Mom and dad never get to meet Paul, though. Instead, Will shows up during yet another finals week and there’s something detached about him, like he doesn’t even really see her when he unexpectedly sits down opposite her at one of the library tables.
“Will? What the hell are you doing here? Did you call me?” she asks, completely surprised. Normally he at least leaves her a text message to announce his visit, but there had been nothing.
“Can I just … can I just sit here?” he asks, his arms wrapped around himself like a protective shield.
“Of course, sure, are you … Will, what happened? Are you okay?” She whispers because the last thing Will needs is for her to cause a scene when everyone else is studying in silence.
“I just want to sit here, okay? You can study. I didn’t want to disturb you.”
She feels a bit hysterical when she hears these words, because in which world wouldn’t it be disturbing to see her big brother appearing out of nowhere, looking like a ghost?
“I … I need to read twenty more pages of this and then we can go, alright?” She knows she won’t be able to focus on the text anyway, but Will looks as if he needs the short break to gather his thoughts and not break apart.
“Alright,” he says quietly and leans back into the chair.
She tries really hard to understand the text in front of her, but it’s all gibberish and her stomach feels like it’s filled with stones. She just wants to hug Will and maybe make it all better, but some voice in the back of her head tells her that she won’t succeed, no matter how hard she tries.
Anne must still be somewhere in the depths of the library, because once Ellie can’t stand to look at her textbook a minute longer and takes Will to the dorm, it’s dark and silent. She moves to switch the light on, but Will stops her and his hand feels cold against hers.
“Don’t,” he says quietly, and she nods.
“Okay ... Will, do you -- ” but she doesn’t really know what to ask, and Will is already moving towards the bathroom.
The light from the streetlight outside illuminates her dorm in a pale yellow, and she’s at a loss. She has no idea what to do. She’s not used to being the one to take care of somebody -- the hazard of being the youngest child and a girl on top of it. She has no illusions about this. She worries about him, of course, she worries all the time, but he never needed her the way she needed him. To cry at his shoulder or to get a hug when the world sucked so much she just wanted to crawl in her bed and never get out again.
And now he’s in her bathroom during finals and from the sound of it he’s washing his hands. She rubs her tired eyes, sends a message off to Anne declaring her the best roommate ever and begs her to stay away. Will is still washing his hands when she comes and stands next to him at the sink.
“Will,” she whispers, but he refuses to meet her eyes. He moves her scented soap bar from his left hand to his right and back again, and it still doesn’t seem enough. “Will,” she says again, this time more urgently. She tries to be calm and focused, but at the same time she feels like her world is tilting and she’s losing her footing. Stuff like this isn’t supposed to happen, not to her, not to Will. Even when she doesn’t know what exactly she means by stuff.
She watches him wash his hands for another five minutes or so before she reaches out and closes the tap. “It’s enough, Will,” she says and curls her hands around his.
“No, it’s -- ” he begins but she cuts him off when she squeezes his hands gently. He still doesn’t look at her.
“It’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s okay,” she whispers and rubs gentle circles on the back of his hands with her thumbs. He shudders and whatever spell has held him together so far seems to be broken. He slides to the tiled floor in graceless heap and she goes with him, never letting him go. He trembles in her arms, and she hugs him tighter. “It’s okay, whatever’s happened it’s -- ”
“Nothing happened,” he interrupts her, his voice hoarse, “not to me.”
And suddenly she understands. She understands because his hands fist her sweater and he doesn’t look at her and because she’s never been a fool when it comes to his work. She squeezes her eyes shut and counts to ten in her mind, forcing her stomach to settle again. She doesn’t ask him if he used a knife or a gun or his bare hands. She doesn’t ask him if it was justified, because she’s not sure she would believe the answer with a government that discounts waterboarding as torture. For a fleeting second she asks herself if she can live with a brother who killed someone, but then something hot and primal flares up in her chest and she knows she loves him, no matter what.
“Did you have a choice?” she asks, and it’s not for her benefit. He’s the one who needs to hear the answer.
“No,” he says and draws a shuddering breath afterwards before he finally looks at her again. He still has dark circles under his eyes, but he looks a little less tightly wound now, a little less detached. She presses a soft kiss to his hair and he hugs her back.
“I want hot chocolate,” she declares and gets up from the cold floor, her legs feeling slightly numb. She reaches out and helps him up. “Or, I don’t know ... you can sleep or -- ”
“Hot chocolate sounds fantastic,” he tells her.
That’s how they wind up sipping hot chocolate from the vending machine on a park bench on campus close to midnight. It all feels a bit ridiculous and surreal, but Will is teasing her about her Statistics final, and they discuss Christmas presents for mom and dad. It’s only a false front, she knows, a thin veil keeping the real world at bay for the moment, but nobody gets to tell her she can’t enjoy these moments.
He’s back to normal at Christmas. He laughs with uncle Marty, they get more than slightly drunk on eggnog, and the only thing that admits to the truth of that night is a tight hug and a whispered “Thank you” when they part again.
Life goes on. He sends her postcards from time to time, he calls her every week and sometimes she even gets to see him. In November their dad has a heart attack.
The flight is endless, time is stretched till it barely moves on, and she feels small and hollow when she finally gets to the hospital. Mom looks relatively fine, but her hair is in disarray when she gives her a kiss on the cheek. Will is already there, and when she sees him she can’t help herself but cry in his arms.
“Dad is going to be fine,” he murmurs and strokes her hair. “They got to him on time. He just needs to rest.”
“Okay ... okay,” she hiccups and tries not to get too much snot on his black coat.
Will is right, it turns out. Dad gave them quite the scare, but he’s going to be fine. He even looks a bit flustered when they all stand around his hospital bed. He’s also very tired still, so they leave him alone and Will buys hot chocolate for her in the cafeteria while mom holds dad’s hand in his sleep in some sappy echo of a Nicholas Spark novel.
“We need a code,” she tells Will between two sips of chocolate. They’re sitting at a table by the window, quite a bit apart from the rest of the customers.
“A code for what?”
“For if -- ”, she bites her lips because she rather not think about it, but it’s like with everything else his job has meant for them, she refuses to shy away from it. He’s her brother after all. “For if something happens to you.”
“Ellie, nothing -- ”
“If you’re going to say will happen to me, than please save your breath. We both know that your job is anything but boring,” she says with probably more heat than is strictly necessary. That shuts him up, because he remembers that particular conversation as well as she does.
“I didn’t lie. Back then, I mean,” he says and there’s a pleading undertone in his voice. He didn’t, she knows. Will has never lied to her. True, most of the times he doesn’t tell her the whole truth either, but that’s not something that can be helped in his line of work.
“So don’t lie to me now,” she replies. “I don’t presume you’re going to be able to send me a postcard if something happens, and I’m somewhat under the impression our government wouldn’t exactly be very forward in delivering any messages, am I right?” For a second he looks like he wants to disagree, but then he thinks better of it. “And I want ... I want somebody to tell me. You don’t need to tell mom and dad, I can take care of that, but I want to know if ... if you’re hurt and can’t send me a postcard for some time. So we’d need somebody to tell me, and we need a code for it. I’m not going to believe a random stranger when it comes to you. I saw too many spy movies in which that went wrong. I mean, you have a team, don’t you?” Her mind comes to a screeching halt, caught up in the horror of him working all alone, of him being hurt and nobody there to protect him, to bring him to safety. Will’s warm hand over hers brings her back, and she blinks at him.
“I have a team,” he says. He smiles gently at her. “And it’s a good one.”
“Good ... good to know,” she replies with a shaky smile of her own.
“Someone could bring you a sunflower,” he suggests after a while. “And tell you that I was suspended for kicking Tommy Monroe’s shin.”
“Which he totally deserved,” she grins at him. “And yes, that will work.”
“So we’re good?”
“We’re good.” She drains the last of her chocolate and hopes with all she has that no stranger will ever show up to give her a sunflower. She doesn’t want her favourite flower to be associated with such a memory.
I'm so, so sorry for keeping you all waiting so long. I had the due date for my final paper coming up and went slightly crazy and didn't sleep that much.
I should also note that this is probably going to develop at least into hinted!Will/Ethan later on. In case that bothers someone.
(And oh my gosh, what did they do to the text editor? I thought they wanted to improve the text import, not force me to clean the html by hand so the line breaks are somewhat okay to look at. The line break only works sporadically and randomly in Rich Text now. Why did they break it?)
She doesn’t see Will for a long time after their talk in the hospital, but he makes sure to call her at least every second week, and she swears she can hear monkeys in the background during one call. She knows better to ask where he is, but three weeks later she gets a postcard showing the Maya pyramids in Palenque and when they finally meet up again to get ice cream he’s sporting a nice tan and smiles a lot.
They talk about dad and how mom had to clear the house of their invading relatives because everyone was so worried and supportive and apparently brought way too much food. Apparently, Aunt Margie made tons of cookies, and nobody had the heart to tell her that these aren’t exactly on the diet list for heart patients. Which is why Ellie had ended up with a box full of said cookies that will probably last her two months. She doesn’t mind, because all she knows about baking she’s learnt from that woman, and so she shares some with Will when they’re back in the dorm.
“I hope nobody starts telling her that celery would be much more appropriate for dad,” she says with a smirk from where she’s lying on the floor on the soft carpet. They’d been training defence moves again, and after Will had put her down for the sixth time she had just stayed there. Now he’s sitting on her bed, but his toes are tucked under her back and wiggle from time to time. She slaps at his legs when he does that, but doesn’t really mean it. She’s just content and happy to have him here with her, nobody with sunflowers and a grave face in sight.
“I think she’d just start saying she’s making them for mom to cheer her up, then,” Will says and bites into another chocolate cookie.
“I don’t care what excuse she needs to keep sending these,” she replies and looks at him. “So, any news to share? You seem awfully happy.”
“I do?” he asks, totally failing at feigning cluelessness.
“Yes, you’re like,” she waves in his general direction, “radiating sunshine.” She frowns at him. “Why are you radiating sunshine?” And now Will’s face turns a nice shade of red, and she has to sit up as to get enough air in lungs to make unworthy noises. “Ooooh, Will! What’s his name? How did you meet? Tell me everything!”
His name is Nathan, and he’s a genuinely nice guy. He’s quiet and gentle, and she likes the way he looks at Will when he doesn’t see it. She thinks that these two are going to last, and she’s right when Will takes Nathan to meet their parents and they celebrate Thanksgiving together. Sometimes, Nathan calls her out of the blue to ask her about Will’s favourite food or to discuss the latest episode of some ridiculous tv show with her. She starts to send him homemade cookies and takes Anne out for cocktails when Nathan and Will mail her simultaneously to inform her of their recent change in address. Nathan sits next to Will and her parents at her graduation and that night they get shit-faced in a karaoke bar. She doesn’t remember anything, but apparently she and Nathan sang “Don’t stop believing” sometime around midnight and now Will has enough blackmail material to last him a lifetime.
She and Anne decide that they’re still not sick of seeing each other, so they move in together. She starts dating a guy named Hank and works some odd jobs at a book store, a coffee shop and even as a receptionist for a state senator’s side office before Will stops by to tell her he knows what she really wants over coffee.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she tells him when she offers him homemade chocolate-mocha cake to go with the coffee. She hates being told what to do, even when Will does it.
“C’mon, Ellie, working for a state senator? That’s not you,” he says and lets out a long-suffering sigh. She’s close to say fuck you to him. Why does he get to tell her anything about her work when she doesn’t even know what exactly he does to begin with? “Could you please stop frowning at me? I’m not the bad guy. I’m here to help.”
“I don’t need help,” she replies.
“But you want a little shop selling cute bags and unique presents and homemade cookies and cake. And you want to do it with Anne, but you don’t have the money to start it,” he says, matter of fact. She nearly lets her coffee cup drop.
“How do you know?”
“How did I know to kick Tommy Monroe? Please,” he rolls his eyes, “I’m your big brother. It’s my job to know these things.”
“This is creepy,” she says slowly and he actually laughs at her.
“You working for the state is creepy. You don’t even trust the government half the time.”
I’m not, she wants to say, but Will works for the government, and she trusts him implicitly. Always has, always will, no matter who he works for. “So what do you propose?” she asks instead.
And then he tells her about his idea to lend her money to start her off, and at first she flat out refuses, but then he gets Anne on board, which is just plain mean. Anne still has a leftover crush on him and wouldn’t even say no to him if she hadn’t spent last night surfing the web for the latest trends on handbags. Anne loves the idea, and she loves Ellie’s cake, and she’d just seen the perfect place for their little shop downtown. It’s a losing battle, really, Ellie slowly realizes.
Two months later, Ellie and Anne open “Bag a cake” and settle into a nice routine. Anne’s job is to show the customers funky stuff they’d never thought they’d like, and Ellie sends them off with a box full of vanilla cookies or raspberry-chocolate cake. They work well together, and slowly, they can even start to pay Will back in money instead of in baked goods.
Life is good for some time. She’s still dating Hank, the shop is going well, and Will has sent her a beautiful postcard from Croatia a month ago.
Of course the happiness doesn’t last.
She’s one week away from an honest to God holiday with Hank in New York City, when Nathan calls her. He sounds tired and worn out and generally miserable, and it takes her a long minute to understand what he’s actually telling her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, and she feels her heart clench, “but I can’t ... I tried, honest to God, but he won’t let me ... he doesn’t ... you should come.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeats before he hangs up.
Anne takes one long look at her before she tells her to just go, she will take care of everything, and she hugs Anne because she’s the best friend in the world and even reminds her to back a few clothes before she drives off. It takes her a bit under four hours to reach Washington, D.C., and it’s only when she crosses the Potomac that she realizes she’s never been to Will and Nathan’s apartment before.
She finds her way in the end, but she has to ring for five minutes straight before Will starts yelling through the intercom for whoever the fuck this is to fucking go away.
“It’s me, Ellie,” she says quietly and for a moment or two she’s afraid he’s not going to let her in. It’s Will, though, her big brother, and he’s as shit at this whole being mean to his sibling thing as she is. He opens the door eventually, and he looks like shit.
“I don’t need a babysitter, no matter what Nathan said, and I don’t want to talk about it,” he tells her, his voice hoarse.
“Okay, so how about we get stupidly drunk in some shitty bar then?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
And that’s exactly what they do. They don’t talk about Nathan or the haunted look Will carries around like a bleeding wound and which has nothing to do with Nathan. They don’t talk about half of the stuff in the apartment that is gone, about the books and pictures that didn’t belong to Will. They don’t talk about the tension in Will’s shoulders or the way he seems uncomfortable in his own skin.
They don’t talk about a lot of things in the following days, but she stays. She calls Hank and cancels the holiday when Will’s asleep. Hank isn’t happy, but then he never quite understood the bond she shares with her brother and thinks Will is creepy with his non-descriptive government job. She couldn’t care less about Hank’s feeling at the moment, so she hangs up on him when he launches in yet another argument about how she needs to distance herself from her brother and become her own person. It’s such a silly thought she’s close to laughter, because cutting off Will would be like cutting off her own arm voluntarily. It’s never going to happen.
Anne understands and tells her to take all the time she needs, but then Anne is probably the most amazing person on the planet and Ellie never really deserved her in the first place.
She makes breakfast and Will probably smelled her homemade buns, because he enters the kitchen with sleep-tousled hair, still not fully awake. She hands him a cup of coffee and gestures him to sit down.
“Eat before they get cold,” she tells him with a smile. He sits down opposite to her, a frown on his face.
“You didn’t ask,” he says and she leans back. She’s expected this kind of non-sequitur for quite some time now. Will has never been good at not telling her things. He never tells her the full details, of course, he never says the whole truth, but he gives her a few sentences, some words so she has an idea of what’s going on. It’s the way they work.
“Didn’t feel like the right time,” she answers finally.
“He left,” he says and there’s a slight hitch to his voice. She wants to tell him she as good as broke up with Hank and now they can go out and play wingman for each other, but this is not about her this time. “I couldn’t -- there’s stuff, something’s happened and I ... “ he looks down and runs a hand over his still tired face. “I couldn’t tell him. I fucked up, and I couldn’t tell him,” he says and still doesn’t meet her eyes. “I’m getting one of these boring desk jobs now.”
He slices the bun and puts honey on one half. She wants to say something, but she doesn’t know what could make any of this better. “Will -- ”
“The bun is delicious,” he interrupts her, and that’s it. They don’t talk about it anymore. She stays two more days, but then he more or less throws her out, claiming she has enough work of her own, and he needs to get his act together to start working again. He looks better, but she’s still reluctant to go. He’s changed, and she hasn’t yet figured out which way exactly, which leaves her more than a bit unsettled. She’s always known him like the back of her own hand, but now there’s a part of him she has no access to and it makes her wary.
“I’m not sure this is a good -- ”
“Ellie,” he interrupts her and even smiles a little. It tugs at her heart. “I’m fi ... I will be fine, eventually.” And this is as honest as he gets these days.
“Promise,” she whispers when she hugs him one last time.
“Promise,” he replies and presses a soft kiss to her cheek.
Thanks to Heather for cheerleading, for keeping me company, and for beta.
Will calls her two weeks later because he had heard about Hank from Mom and Dad, and she tells him she’s fine.
“He never got me anyway,” she says, curled into her favourite green blanket on her couch. “Wanted me to change.”
“But you are perfect,” he replies with enough honest indignation that she just has to laugh.
“You’re my big brother, I’m fairly sure it’s written down in your sibling duties that you have to tell me this.”
“He’s an idiot.”
“I won’t argue that,” she says with a smile. He sounds better now. Maybe not okay, but better. She relaxes.
They don’t talk about Nathan or Hank anymore after that, but Will tells her other stuff. Things he never mentioned before, like that one colleague who only ever orders green salad in the cafeteria or that he’s worried he’s forgetting German pronunciation because he just doesn’t need to speak it anymore. It confirms some of her suspicions, and in a way she’s thankful to whatever happened in Croatia. It means that Will is around more, that he spends more weekends with her trying out new recipes, and that she can call him whenever she wants, and he will pick up.
She tries not to think about how she misses his postcards from the other ends of the world.
Time goes by. The shop is still doing well. She and Anne can pay back Will in full, but he also takes cupcakes as payment. Life is good, Dad’s heart doesn’t scare them anymore, Mom takes to quilting, and on a freaking freezing January day, Eric stumbles into “Bag a cake” with a mouthful of curses and covered in snow. He eyes her bakery assortment warily and eventually decides on banana bread. He comes back the next day, with another set of curses about the weather, and the next and the next. Anne takes to giggling the moment he enters, and after a week of this Eric finally asks Ellie out for lunch. Being with him is easy in a way that’s completely new and exciting for her. It’s also infuriating as hell, but somehow nobody takes her seriously when she complains about him.
Nobody is surprised when they eventually move in together, either. Least of all Anne, who gives Ellie her blessing with a big smile the moment she finally has the guts to tell her, and then starts talking about redecorating Ellie’s old room.
“You don’t complain so much about people you don’t care about,” Will explains his lack of surprise to her one evening after she’s served him strawberry cupcakes and just closed the shop for the day. It’s Anne’s day off. “And he’s okay.”
She looks up from where she’s counting the money in the register. “He’s okay?” she asks, suspicion evident in her voice.
“Um … ” Will trails off and it looks like he’s actually trying to hid behind the cupcake.
“What did you do, Will?”
“I may have checked him out.”
“Checked him out? How?”
“Just took a look to see if he has any record … you know, criminal ones.”
For a moment she’s angry that he doesn’t trust her enough not to choose a felon, but then she sighs and sits down next to him. “And? Does he?”
“Nope, he’s totally clean and very likable.”
“Well, thank God for that,” she replies with a smirk and steals the last bit of his cupcake. “But that’s not why you’re here, right?” And it’s quite adorable the way he looks as if she caught him with his hands in the cookie jar.
“No,” he admits and sits straighter. Oh, she thinks, this is something important. “I’ve been promoted,” he says and she wonders why he looks like this is bad news.
“Congrats! Why didn’t you say anything earlier? You’d have gotten more than a lousy cupcake. I could have made a lemon -- ”
“I haven’t accepted the promotion yet.”
“What? Why not?”
“I’m not … ” He runs his left hand through his hair and bites his lip. She frowns.
“What is it, Will?” she asks, a feeling of dark foreboding in her stomach. She imagines he has to go to Afghanistan for this promotion, or some backwater town in Siberia. Somewhere far away so she won’t see him for ages. Maybe he won’t even be able to write her postcards.
“I’m not sure it’s … “ His shoulders slump, and she reaches out to touch his hand. “It’s probably not safe.”
“For you?” She asks and remembers a week he spent with her, bruises marring his body. She doesn’t want that for him.
“No, for you, for Mom and Dad. There will … I’ll get access to files and stuff and -- ”
“Will,” she interrupts him and squeezes his hand. She’s seen enough spy movies to know where his thoughts lead him. “How likely is that some big bag guy goes after your family for something he can probably hack his way into? It’s the 21st century, after all,” she says with a smile. “And I presume Mom and Dad already told you not to be stupid about it?”
“How do you -- ”
“Please, you’re my family. I know you all like the back of my hand. So, spill.”
“Dad said he better get Granddad’s old shotgun from the attic,” he answers her with a small smile, and she has to laugh. That sounds like something their dad would say. “And Mom threatened to whack me over the head with her knitting needles if I don’t get my act together.”
“And she’s totally right,” she replies. “Don’t worry about us.”
“Are you sure -- ”
“Stop right there or I’ll go looking for my own knitting needles.”
“But the real question is, will it make you happy? That promotion?”
He takes his time answering her, but finally he nods. “I think so. I’m good at what I’m doing, and I can help people with it.”
“Then it’s a done deal.”
“I’d still feel better if you could pick up some self-defense class,” he admits.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
That evening, she tells Eric she wants to go to a class in the local gym, and when he says he wants to join her, she knows she’s found a keeper.
They marry the next June.
Helen Mary, named after Eric’s late grandmother, is born April. She’s a little bundle of joy and screams, and it’s clear from the start that her family will spoil her rotten. Apparently, Ellie doesn’t have a say in that. Her and Eric’s parents team up to buy what amounts to a middle-sized stuffed animals army and wave away her concerns with smiles and enthusiasm about their first grandchild. Will is more subtle, but still very adamant that he won’t close the bank account he opened in Helen’s name.
“You don’t even know if she wants to go to college,” Ellie argues half-heartedly, sitting in a reclining chair on her porch.
“Doesn’t matter,” Will replies with a smile, gently rocking Helen to sleep in his arms. “Then she can buy a car, or travel with the money, or whatever else she wants.”
Ellie sighs, but knows she won’t change his mind. He can be a stubborn bastard. “I’m glad you’re here,” she finally says. She’s sleepy, and she stretches out under the blanket covering her, knowing her daughter is in good hands.
“Me too,” he replies, a soft smile on his lips. It suits him, and she smiles at him, being completely at peace with the world. “Frère Jacques, frère Jacques, dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? Sonnez les matines … ” Will starts to sing quietly. She remembers that lullaby from her childhood, when he sang it to her after a bad nightmare. She’s stupidly happy that her daughter gets to hear Will’s lovely voice as well, and it lulls them both to sleep.
The passing of time is marked by Helen’s first smile, the very first time she sits up alone, the first steps she takes. It’s also marked by the increasingly elaborate security systems Will insists they install in their home, and the way the monthly sums transferred to Helen’s fund keep increasing. Ellie’s long given up arguing about that. She’s thanking Will in her own way, by baking him his favorite cake when he spends the weekend with them, or by sending him a dozen muffins when he can’t make it for a month. Helen is old enough to mangle his name to something like “Mill” or “Sill” when he starts traveling again. This time around, his postcards come from capital cities, and they nearly always coincide with some obscure international meeting you’d only know about if you watch CNN all the time.
She’s nine months pregnant when she gets a card showing the Red Square. A day later the Kremlin explodes, and she can’t reach Will. The news says something about a terrorist attack, or a gas leak, or the US attacking Russia, but Ellie doesn’t care. She wants, she needs to hear Will’s voice. She needs to know he’s okay, that he will be there once the little boy is born, that he can sing him to sleep the way he did it with Helen, that she can bake Will all the cake he wants, and then some. It’s too much, she’s not used to being scared for Will anymore. She’s gotten used to their version of normalcy, to take self-defense classes, to have a security system that probably rivals the one in the White House, to pin Will’s postcards to the fridge with colored magnets, and to show her daughter on a map where her uncle’s already been.
Eric tries to calm her down, says that everything will be okay, but Eric doesn’t know about that one week in college, about the night Will tried to scrub his hands clean from blood that wasn’t there. Eric hasn’t seen the haunted look in Will’s eyes after Croatia. But Ellie’s been there, every single time, and she knows how much Will loves what he does, and how much it cost him. She’s not ready to add his own life to that bill.
She loses track of time a bit after that, because she goes into labor, and Eric is there, holding her hand when she’s crying not only from the pain. Her parents wait outside with Helen, and sometime later Eric’s parents arrive, but it’s Will she wants and doesn’t have. Fourteen hours later she’s giving birth to a healthy baby boy, and he’s perfect in her arms, but she wonders how she can be so happy and so heartbroken at the same time. More than anything she wants the little boy in her arms to meet his uncle, to be hold by him, and she has no idea if that will ever happens.
She’s still in the hospital, Eric having taken Helen for ice cream to distract her from losing her single child status, when Will enters her room. For a moment she thinks she’s hallucinating, that her hormones are totally out of whack now, but then he hugs her and apologizes again and again. She’s switching between hitting his arm and hugging back, and then she’s crying again and incredibly thankful that she can all blame it on her hormones.
“I’m sorry, really, really sorry,” Will still whispers, holding her close when she’s calmed down somewhat.
“You okay?” She asks.
“Yes, I’m okay now,” he tells her, and there’s something in his voice she can’t identify. She know she’s missing something important, a certain note that should mean more, but she’s too busy being happy that he came back at all to think about it more.
“Then come, meet your nephew,” she says and takes his hand to lead him to the other side of the bed, where the baby sleeps peacefully in his crib. “We named him William.”
“William?” Will asks, eyes going wide.
“Well, we call him Billy ... but yeah, William, after his wonderful uncle.”
“Hi, Billy,” Will whispers, an arm around Ellie’s shoulder, and kisses her hair.
It’s about a month before Ellie is sure that something’s changed. Will doesn’t have much time these days, and she’s pretty sure it has something to do with what happened in Moscow and that thing that most definitely wasn’t a meteor. But he’s also happier, relaxed, more at peace with himself than he’s been in a very, very long time.
“I’ll take up travelling again,” he informs her one day over the telephone.
“But you’ve been travelling the whole time,” she replies with a frown.
“Yeah, but no more capital cities for me. At least most of the time.”
“Oh,” she says, because she understands the code. He’s back in the field, and for a split second she wants to beg him to reconsider, but then she remembers how he’s changed since Moscow, and she can’t begrudge him this newfound whatever it is. “Do you have a ... team?”
“The best,” he answers her without any hesitation and it goes a long way to reassure her.
“Good ... good to know,” she says, echoing words she’s spoken years ago. “Send me postcards, will you?”
“Of course,” he promises her with a chuckle.
And so he does. Helen gets to know the world by her Uncle’s postcards, knows where Masqat and Kagoshima are before most kids her age even realize there are other places outside the States. Billy helps putting the cards on the fridge by choosing the magnets, and once a month Eric hunts down food typical for the place of Will’s latest postcard.
Ellie’s happy, content with the way her life turned out. And she’s thankful that Will seems to have found his peace, that he smiles more often and carefree now, and she has half made up her mind to ask if there’s a special someone. They’ve just celebrated Billy’s first birthday a few days earlier, had too much cake and cookies and brownies, and Anne is making fun of her for it, but Ellie doesn’t really care. Will couldn’t make it, but he sent a huge parcel full of toys, most of them strewn around the shop by now, where Billy is happily trying to destroy his new colourful bricks at the moment. Ellie is trying to keep the chaos to a minimum, but so far none of the customers have complained, but are completely smitten by the little one.
Anne is telling her something about a new handbag collection she wants some pieces of when Ellie sees him through the shop window. A somewhat handsome guy with shaggy brown hair wearing a black leather jacket, but that’s not what catches her eyes. It’s the sunflower he’s holding in his hands.
“Keep an eye on Billy for a sec,” she tells Anne then before she’s walking out of the shop, wrapping her arms around herself to shield her from the harsh fall wind.
“My name’s Ethan Hunt,” the guy says and stretches his hand out to her. She doesn’t take it, and he lets it fall to his side again. She wants to yell at him to go away, to not be real, that this all is a horrible misunderstanding, that she loves sunflowers and how can Will do this to her? “Back in school,” Ethan goes on, “Will was suspended for kicking Tommy Monroe’s shin.”
Ellie has spent a few sleepless nights imagining this moment, but it has never felt like this, so hollow and surreal. This doesn’t happen to people in real life. They don’t get bad messages validated by a piece of childhood memory and Helianthus annuus. She swallows dryly and takes a deep breath. She can fall apart later, she tells herself. “Is he alive?”
“Yes, but barely,” Ethan says.
I'm so, so sorry it took me so long to update. I don't really have a valid excuse other than that writing this part of the story makes me feel sad, and I didn't want to feel sad ...
Thanks to Heather, who beta'd, and to each and everyone of you who left kudos and/or a lovely review. I hope this chapter was worth the long wait.
She’s not crying, because crying means admitting there’s something wrong. And once she does that there’s no turning back. Instead she takes another deep breath, squares her shoulders and looks at Ethan. “Okay, take me to him.” It’s not a question, not a plea, and Ethan seems to understand.
“My car’s around the corner.”
“Good. Give me a minute to get my jacket.”
Later, she won’t remember walking back into the shop, she won’t remember the hug from Anne, or kissing her son goodbye.
She will remember taking her jacket. She will remember the hot chocolate one of her customers ordered and she never got around to making. She won’t remember how she gets into Ethan’s car.
“How bad?” She asks when they’re clear of the city limits, and she feels like she can use her voice without it breaking apart like shattered glass. It’s important, somehow, she thinks, that she didn’t ask for specifics while still in town. The town is her home, the place where her family is safe. She can still pretend that, even though she’s clutching a single sunflower between her fingers.
“You really want -- ”
“Just tell me. He never lies to me,” she says. He doesn’t take his eyes off the road, but somehow his face gets softer, loses an edge.
“He got poisoned. We don’t know yet with what, but we’re working on it. We have the best.” And the way he says it, like it’s not a matter of if but only when they find an antidote, like failure isn’t an option ... she likes that. It reminds her of Will and his determination to set the world right for her, no matter how old she’s gotten in the meantime.
“He’s not allowed to die. Billy can’t even pronounce his name properly yet.”
And now Ethan looks over to her, and he hesitates for a moment. It’s something she doesn’t think he does very often. “I told him the same,” he finally says, and she thinks she understands a bit.
They come to a halt on the tarmac of the nearest airport. It’s a small one, and a private jet is waiting for them. She doesn’t bother asking before she climbs inside. There, she sits down, draws her legs up to her chest and wraps her arms around her knees. She feels small and alone, and very, very young.
“I’m sorry,” Ethan says quietly after take-off, and she looks up to meet his eyes.
“Did you poison him?”
“No, but I -- ”
“Then it’s not your fault,” she interrupts him. “And not your place to apologize.”
“Some traits do run in the family, then,” Ethan says, smiling gently.
“You’re his team?”
“Part of it.”
“He says you’re the best. He’s never said that about any other team he’s worked with before,” she tells him because she thinks that somehow, this is important for him to hear. The soft smile she sees on his lips proves her right.
They’re quiet for the rest of the flight, and then for the ride to the hospital. They drive past the Potomac, and she thinks the last time she’s been in D.C., she was about to lose Will, too. Not to some mysterious poison, but to his inner demons, and she prays that once again he’ll pull through.
They arrive at a military hospital, but nobody bothers to check her credentials once Ethan waves a badge at the security personnel up front. A small part of her thinks she should feel more unsettled by the air of command Ethan wears like a shield around him, by the power he seems to wield, but then she shakes hands with people called Jane and Benji before they lead her to Will, and she forgets about everything else.
Somebody once told her that hospitals are the place of men’s biggest triumphs and greatest downfalls. She thinks back to Helen’s and Billy’s births, and the overwhelming joy she felt, and then she looks at Will, at the machine breathing for him, his nearly translucent skin, and she thinks that person was right.
“You’re not allowed to go yet,” she tells Will after she’s sat down on a chair next to the bed. “I don’t care if I’m supposed to say it will be okay like in all these hospital dramas, that you can check out if it hurts too much to stay here, and I won’t be angry with you. Because I will be, I’ll be pissed as hell. You didn’t sing Billy to sleep often enough yet, you didn’t take him and Helen to the zoo, you ... ” she trails off, because it feels unfair to accuse him of being a bad uncle. He isn’t. He loves his niece and nephew, and she knows it. “Just,” she whispers, “just try, okay?”
He doesn’t answer her, and she swallows back tears.
She doesn’t know how longs she stays with him, just that sometime later Ethan comes in and quietly asks her if they should inform their parents. She honestly has no answer to that.
“Is he going to die?” She asks instead, feeling oddly detached and numb. She still has that single sunflower in her left hand.
“They don’t know,” Ethan answers her, and in another lifetime, she thinks, she could appreciate his honesty more. She nods at him and gets up. She finds Benji and he hands her a cellphone on her way outside. The sky is dark and void of clouds, and she thinks she’s never been to the Washington Memorial, never walked the Mall.
Later, she won’t remember a single piece of the conversation with her parents, only that Ethan appears next to her after a while and gently takes the phone out of her hands. Benji sets her up with a video chat, so she can tell her kids goodnight, and she tells Eric to stay home with them. Jane brings her clothes to change into, and she hopes she remembered to thank her, but she can’t recall. Time is a weird mixture of moving too fast, and not at all, and she wonders if anybody else feels it as well.
She finds herself sitting at the floor of Will’s hospital room, leaning against the wall, eyes fixed on Will’s still form.
“Your parents will be here in the morning,” Ethan tells her and sits down next to her.
“Thanks,” she replies, but he shakes his head.
“No, don’t -- ”
“Not for that,” she interrupts him. “For saving him.” He stares at her.
“I didn’t do anything,” he says.
“We both know it’s not true,” she says. “You were there, in Moscow, right?” He looks at her for a long time before he finally nods. “He changed, afterwards,” she tells him and wonders why Ethan looks at her like he’s guilty of something until the pieces of information she has rearrange themselves in her head, and she connects the dots. “Oh,” she whispers, eyes wide.
“I didn’t know, after Croatia -- if I had known ... ,” Ethan says at the same time, looking down at his hands, and it’s probably a rare occurrence that he can’t find the right words, can’t make something okay. She thinks she should be angry at him, and she is, because he cost Will years of his life, cost him a relationship, but she’s also tired and scared, and she simply doesn’t have the energy for even more emotions.
“Did he forgive you?” She asks instead.
“Yes,” Ethan says slowly, as if he’s not sure that’s the answer she wants to hear. “I’m not sure I deserve it.”
“Not your call,” she reminds him, and they sit in silence for a long while, the night slowly moving on. It’s peaceful, and she’s getting sleepy. “You’re in love with him, aren’t you?” She finally asks, her voice soft and sure. It seems like the right question for the hours between midnight and dawn, when everything seems sharper and more unreal at the same time.
He turns his head and studies her, and she knows she’s thrown him again. He doesn’t look like that happens very often to him, and she’d probably smile if it weren’t for the wheezing sound of the respirator reminding her why she’s here in the first place.
“We went apartment hunting last month,” he eventually says. “He wanted to tell you when we found one.”
“You have to come along for Thanksgiving,” she says. “I make really good pie.”
“We will,” he whispers, and she finds a weird sense of comfort in his words. And then the day catches up with her, and she falls asleep on his shoulder.