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The Runner

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___________________

 

The call went out at twenty-two hundred, GMT.

Ethan Hunt was testing his new Tesla against the proving grounds in Arizona. He’d modified the coolant pump in the hopes it would help him break his personal best of zero to sixty in three-point-six seconds but so far, the proving grounds—and sheer physics—were winning.

Jane Carter had just finished her afternoon workout and was in her upstairs studio, sitting in a lotus position, trying to ignore the anger that had taken her by surprise. On the desk was a copy of the letter from Trevor’s father, asking what had really happened to his son. She was trying to ignore that as well.

Benji Dunn was having a ball. He’d just completed the first successful test of his new gravity slash mini-jet propulsion suit. Now all he had to do was come up with a really cool name for it and send the prototype to Ethan. If he were lucky, he’d get to fly it out to California himself. But, you know, not in the suit.

When William Brandt got the call—three hours late—he was waiting impatiently for his plane from London to roll to a stop. He was tired and wanted nothing but his apartment and maybe dinner. When his cell rang, he considered ignoring it but some sixth sense told him it was the call he’d been expecting for thirteen days. He tipped the cell sideways to hide the screen from his overly curious seatmate, a man who’d managed to snore the entire nine-hour flight. The message was short—it just said to call his Aunt Sally when he had the chance. He sighed and erased the message, pressing ‘delete’ harder than necessary. Aunt Sally. Bet Ethan had been smirking when he’d hit send.

***

“You can’t be serious?”

There was no answer and he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “You can’t be serious,” he said again, this time a little louder, his smile dying.

Ethan’s expression didn’t change. “You said it yourself, remember?”

“Yeah, but I was kidding, okay? Kidding. I’d just been rotisseried and—”

“Ah,” Benji interrupted, finger up. “Point of fact—you weren’t actually burned. Just heated to a degree of—”

Will glanced over his shoulder. Benji stopped talking with an audible gulp and went back to whatever he was doing to his laptop.

Will turned back around. Ethan was leaning against the frame of the sliding glass door and the setting sun highlighted one side of his face a bright orange, casting the other side in shadow. “As I was saying, I was just joking.”

Ethan gave him a long, searching look. “And I’m not. This is the mission, should you—”

He waved away the words. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He knew his big mouth would get him into trouble sooner or later, but sooner seemed a hell of a lot, well, sooner.

“Brandt?” Ethan said smoothly, the hint of steel finally showing.

“Yeah.” He nodded. “Yes, of course I accept.” Like I’m going to say no to you?

“Good,” Ethan murmured. “We need to leave in the morning. Benji? The messages we intercepted are encrypted. Take care of them and make sure we all get a copy, okay?”

Benji tossed a small screwdriver in the air and said cheerfully, “Will do. Can’t wait.” He wiggled his eyebrows at Jane, adding sotto voce, “There’s nothing like a little decryption to start your day off right.”

Jane smiled but didn’t answer. She was still bent over the tablet, reviewing the mission data.

Will rubbed his chin. He’d assumed he’d take the bodyguard role. He’d even packed his black suit and men-in-black sunglasses. Of course, he'd also assumed this was going to be a relatively simple version of the Spanish Prisoner ploy, not— “This isn’t payback for Mexico City, is it?”

Ethan raised his eyebrows. “It’s not. I’m giving you the fun part. I can—”

“No,” he interrupted with a shake of his head. “No, it’s cool. I’m on it.”

“Okay.” Ethan pushed away from the door and came over to the table. “You all know your roles. If everything goes according to plan, this should be a quick in and out.” He leaned on the table, palms flat, about five inches from Will. There was a smear of grease on his left thumb and more under his fingernails. He’d either been working on his new car or was really letting himself go.

“When was the last time that happened?” Benji asked absently.

Will jerked his head up, confused for a brief moment before he remembered what they were talking about.

“The Kandahar job wasn’t so bad,” Jane mused. She scrolled through the images once again then pushed the tablet away. “Neither was the Geneva job.”

“And there was London,” Ethan added. “And—”

Benji rolled his eyes. “Okay, so they’re not all bad. I’m just saying, I hope we’re done by Saturday.”

“That’s the third time you’ve mentioned Saturday,” Ethan said. “What’s going on?”

Benji grinned and closed his laptop, then jumped up and hurried to the table. He sat on it, pushing the tablet out of the way. “I thought you’d never ask. I’ve got a date with Jennifer Pavanaja.” He looked around the table, eyebrows raised in expectation.

“Who’s Jennifer Pavanaja?” Will muttered because no one else did.

“Only the prettiest girl in R&D,” Benji answered brightly. “Been there about two years. I’ve been asking her out for, well, two years now.” He grinned and shook his head.

Will wanted to do the same. Two years? He’d never waited for anyone for two months much less two years.

“And she said yes?” Jane said, sounding just as doubtful as Will felt. “What’s her angle?” Her voice was neutral, but her expression wasn’t and Benji fell for it.

“Angle? Why should she have an angle? Now that I’m a field agent—”

Jane’s smile broke free and Benji stopped mid-rant. “Oh, you—” He shook his finger at her. “I’m going to wreak such a—”

“Guys?” Ethan said, straightening up.

“Yeah, okay.” Jane nodded, standing as well. “Is anyone hungry? I’m going to grab a salad before I go back to my hotel.”

“I could fancy a bite.” Benji hurried over to his laptop and stuffed it in his bag. “Well, er, not a salad, of course. But I’ll get a beer and a sandwich.”

Jane glanced at Will. “You coming?”

“No,” he said, giving her a brusque wave. “I’m not hungry.”

She hesitated, looking quickly at Ethan then back again. “Okay. See you in the morning.”

He watched them go, and then they were alone, he and Ethan. He nudged the tablet with this knuckle, making it spin. When it slowed down he did it again, harder this time.

“Brandt?”

He looked up. Ethan had returned to the window. The sun was down and it was hard to make out his expression.

“You don’t have to do this, if you don’t want to.”

The tablet was still spinning and he stopped it with the flat of his hand.  “No. I’ll do it.”

“It’s just,” Ethan went on as if he hadn’t spoken, “your file says you’ve—” He shrugged and finished mildly, “Had experience in this regard.”

This regard. Will smiled, letting it broaden to a smirk. “My file is out of date. That was a long time ago.” And something he generally tried to forget.

“Still…” Ethan made an odd gesture, strangely tenuous.

He turned to face Ethan, meeting challenge for challenge. “And you? What about your experience. In this regard?” He stretched out his legs in a false show of indifference.

“Some,” Ethan said evenly.

Some. He tapped his fingers on the table.  “And if you were in my shoes?” 

“I’d do it and count it a job well done.”

“Because the fate of the world rests in our hands.”

It wasn’t a question, but Ethan nodded gravely. “It does. Well,” he amended with that lightning quick smile of his, visible even through the gloom. “Not the entire world, just a small portion of it.”

Will didn’t say anything for a long moment. He could, of course, walk away—there was always that option. ‘If you choose to accept,’ wasn’t a casual phrase given on a whim. It was a concept developed over the years to allow for the vagaries of the human condition, both the physical and mental. No one wanted to go into the field with an agent who had even minor reservations about a mission—accidents happened that way. Accidents still happened that way.

But…

“Yeah, okay,” he heard himself saying. He touched the tablet. It came to life and a photo gallery popped up, pictures of tilting palm trees, impossibly blue water and a hotel that towered over a bright white beach. “At least I’ll go out in style.” He shoved the tablet away and stood. “So, eight tomorrow morning?”

“Yes. We’ll pick you up.”

“Good.”

He was almost out the door, when Ethan called him back, “Brandt? This isn’t a death sentence, you know. We’ll be there the whole way, on comms and in person. You won’t be alone.”

He smiled and nodded, then closed the door with a sharp tug. He strode to the elevators, unsure if he was angry because his main job was to seduce the rich geek or that Ethan would be watching the whole time.

But he supposed it didn’t matter—he was fucked either way.

***

The initial stage of the op went according to plan. The twelve-hour flight to Paradise Island, setting up the command base in a hotel that wasn’t nearly as fancy as the Burj, then down to the casino where he was supposed to do his thing.

Business as usual, for the most part, and nothing he couldn't handle but he hadn’t expected to be so damn bored. “Robin?” he muttered, propping his elbow on the bar, using the movement to shield his mouth with his fingers. “You said the seminar would be over at five. It’s now seven. Seven, Robin.” A quick in and out, that’s what Ethan had said.

“It is. I mean, was,” Benji hissed. “I can’t help it if they’re running long. He’s talking about some really cool stuff and they’re all asking questions.”

“Can’t you hack the air conditioning? Make it too hot for them?” That would get them moving.

“No,” Ethan murmured. “We’re not going to do anything that will tip our hand. We wait.”

Will sighed and took a sip of his drink. It was mostly melted ice but it was too soon to order another—he’d had two already and if he had anymore, he’d have to pee and that would be a mood killer. If Mockingbird ever showed up, of course.

He swiveled his chair around and leaned back against the bar.

The casino was designed as a shallow arc, the entrance to the hotel lobby on his left, the doors to the block of conference rooms on his right. Beyond that, it was pretty much like every casino he’d ever been in—a large room decorated with a lot of gold and red everything, packed to the gills with people and very, very noisy.

He glanced to the left. Ethan was sitting by the water feature, pretending to chat on his cell as he watched the crowd.

To the right, against the back wall, sat Jane. She was supposed to be playing the patient trophy girlfriend, but was really fending off one rich guy after another. After she’d politely told the last one to get lost, she glanced Will’s way, her distracted smile fading to a frown. She’d been doing that all day; watching him, frowning at him. He couldn’t decide if she was worried for him or the mission.

He looked at his watch then rubbed his chin. “He’s not coming, guys. I’m going for a walk. The bartender is starting to give me the eye and I don’t mean that in a good way.”

“No,” Ethan said, “Stay in position, Blue Jay.”

He got to his feet, drawing a breath to argue, just as the double doors on the right opened and a small crowd flowed in. Finally. He sat down again turned to the bar, watching discreetly in the mirror as the crowd moved his way.

Philippe Christophe Renault. A fancy name for a recently unknown Swiss data encryption expert. He’d hit the scene the year before when he’d managed to break what was a supposedly unbreakable algorithm using quantum physics and was now being wooed by various countries and governments.

As well as one IMF agent.

Will snorted and raised his finger when the bartender looked his way.

“What’s so funny?” Ethan murmured just as Jane whispered, “Wow. Mockingbird’s photos don’t do him justice.”

He ignored Ethan and looked closer in the mirror.

The photos they had of Renault were high res and sharp. Taken at various conferences and seminars, they’d shown a man not especially handsome or remarkable. Six foot, blond hair, fair skin, brown eyes—nothing unusual. But what was commonplace on paper was startling in real life. Or maybe it was the lighting that made Renault seem startlingly handsome. Maybe it was his very expensive grey silk suit.

Maybe it was just that geeks were supposed to be awkward and homely.

“Wow, you’re right,” Benji muttered. “Hey, Blue Jay—looks like you’re in for a fun evening.”

Benji didn’t sound like he was kidding—if anything he sounded awestruck and Will had to stop himself from flipping off the security camera just overhead. If Renault was so gorgeous, Benji could just come down and screw him himself.

“Okay,” Ethan said, “Mockingbird is an asset. We want to find out what’s in that little book he carries in the pouch around his neck and that’s all. He can’t know what hit him.”

“You mean Skylark doesn’t get to kick him through a plate glass window?” Will asked, unable to tamp down the unexpected sarcasm.

“It wasn’t through the glass, Blue Jay,” Jane answered tightly. “And it was an accident.”

‘Yeah,’ he started to say, and, ‘I’m sorry,’ because he was, but just then, Renault’s group got to the bar and they lined up, one geek after another. He smoothed out his expression and promised himself he’d apologize to Jane later, when the mission was over and they were on the plane home.

“Blue Jay?” Ethan murmured. “Remember, he’s a narcissist. He likes them blue-eyed with a high IQ and a smart mouth.”

That could just as well describe Ethan, but he wasn’t going to be the one to point that out. He didn’t count on Benji, though. Just as he was taking a sip of his fresh drink, Benji spoke up.

“Falcon?” he said. “You do realize, don’t you, that describes you, as well? Or me, for that matter. Not that I want to—”

“Robin?” Ethan murmured tightly.

“Yes, right. Got it. Shutting it. Now.”

Benji sounded so put out that Will couldn’t help it—he choked on a nervous laugh and then on a sliver of ice when it went down the wrong way. He coughed and coughed again, bent over the bar, clutching the glass. Shit.

“Are you all right?”

He looked up. Renault was peering around one of his fans, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah,” Will wheezed. “Forgot how to drink for a moment there.” His eyes were watering and his face was hot; he was probably beet red. Real smooth, Will.

But Renault just smiled sympathetically and edged around the other man. “And the last thing you want to do while choking is chat, no?”

Will stopped himself from rolling his eyes. “That would be pretty low on my list, yeah.” The ache in his throat was fading and he straightened up. “Sorry about that.”

“No need,” Renault said, holding out a napkin.

He took it and wiped away his tears. He glanced in the mirror. Ethan was still sitting by the water feature and their eyes met. Will looked away first. “Thanks.”

“No need,” Renault repeated and he held out his hand again, this time in greeting. “Philippe.”

Will tossed the napkin away and took Renault’s hand, an awkward angle made worse by the bar. “Edward.” Renault was as good-looking close up as he was ten feet away and a twinge of apprehension set up shop in his stomach.

“Edward,” Renault murmured, finally letting go. “Are you here on holiday?”

He shrugged. His cover was the standard story, designed to put him the best, I’m vulnerable and ready for a roll between the sheets, light. “Supposedly.”

Renault glanced over Will’s shoulder, then back again. “'Supposedly?' That doesn't sound good.”

“It's not.”

“I’m sorry. Is it your girlfriend, wife…?”

Renault trailed off delicately and Will shrugged again. He was back on his game and would play his part perfectly. “Boyfriend,” he said flatly, as if embarrassed.

“Ah.” Renault looked away again.

“Yeah, ‘ah.’” He was losing Renault’s interest, he could feel it. He downed the last of his drink and sat the empty glass on the bar.

Renault turned to the bartender, pointed to Will’s drink then held up two fingers.

“It’s just tonic water,” Will said, again as if embarrassed.

Renault smiled. “Then we won’t drink to your health.”

Will forced an answering smile at the weak joke, and was about to pull out the big guns and smile while mentioning how loud and crowded the casino was and wouldn’t a nice walk on the beach be great? when Renault’s cell rang. Shit, just like Mumbai. He nodded absently as the bartender set two glasses down and Renault answered the call.

“Blue Jay?" Ethan murmured "He’s getting ready to fly the coop.”

Like he didn’t know that and he rubbed his ear, wishing he could turn off the earwig without Benji knowing.

Renault’s conversation was short. He hung up and smiled regretfully. “I’m sorry. As much as I’d like to continue our conversation, I must leave.”

“Something’s come up?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Renault’s glance strayed again only this time he stepped to the right. Clear signals that whatever Will was selling, he wasn’t buying.

“Then,” he scrambled, trying to save the situation. “Maybe later on?”

“Maybe,” Renault murmured, picking up his glass, already turning away.

And, fuck, short of tackling the man, he was going to have to let him go. He downed the last of his drink and looked over at Ethan’s mirror image. He’d gotten up and was standing by the doors.

Will murmured into his glass, “If you tell me to be Venus, I’m going to come over there and shoot you.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything. These things happen. We’ll have to go with the backup plan.”

The backup plan was crude, a simple trip and grab. But Renault needed to be outside, away from his followers and any onlookers.

Not something that was going to happen, at least anytime soon. As Renault began to thread his way through the crowd towards the lobby, his groupies followed and one called out, distracting him for a moment. He turned to look over his shoulder and bumped into a woman.

It was like watching a slow-motion sequence in a movie—everything grew silent, everything slowed down. Renault turned to apologize to the women and he stumbled, his arms flying out, the glass slipping free. It sailed in a smooth arc, liquid streaming like a waterfall. Renault tried to catch it and tripped again, falling as well.

Will jumped to his feet but Ethan was closest and he reacted instantly. He dived, catching Renault before he hit the ground. They swayed back and forth, but Ethan managed there as well. He found his footing and tugged, straightening up, carrying Renault with him.

The world refocused with a snap. Renault began apologizing, the concierge appeared, and the onlookers went back to their conversations. The concierge picked up the glass, then said something to Ethan, too low for Will to hear. Ethan smiled at her, shook his head and took a step back.

She turned to Renault but whatever she said was lost because Renault had gotten out his handkerchief and was dabbing Ethan’s jacket and shirt, brushing the secondary mic sewn into his tie.

The mic whined, sending a loud burst of static through Will’s earwig and he tried not to cringe. He glanced at Jane. She was standing by a statue of Neptune, frowning, touching her ear.

The whine got louder and Ethan’s smiled wavered. He grabbed Renault’s hand and said something. Whatever he said worked—Renault stopped dabbing and put his handkerchief away.

The static died and the audio cleared. Will sighed. And then stiffened again when Renault said, “…sorry. Let me, please.”

Ethan shook his head, waving away Renault words. He retreated again, another small step back. He was trying to disappear into anonymity but Renault wouldn’t let him. When he stepped back once more, Renault followed and this time his voice was crystal clear.

“It is such a beautiful suit. You really must let me make it up to you. Maybe dinner or a drink?”

“No, really,” Ethan said. “It wasn’t your fault. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time.” He was almost to the pillar by the door and it was kind of funny, the advance and retreat but only kind of because Will had observed Ethan long enough to know how he reacted to being cornered.

Of course, Renault didn’t know that and he stepped forward. Again. “Please. Just a drink. I feel dreadful.”

Ethan leaned backward, his weight on his right heel, his left hand slightly lifted—he was preparing to shove Renault away. Will put his drink down, unsure of what he was going to do, only getting ready in case he needed to step in. But suddenly Ethan's body language changed, a sudden relaxation of muscles and stance. He straightened up and smiled. “All right.”

“Yes?” Renault asked. “You will let me take you out?”

“Just for a drink.”

“Yes, just a drink.” Renault reached out and touched Ethan’s arm. “I know a place. You’ll love it.”

“I need to change first.” Ethan gestured to his damp jacket and shirt.

“Yes, of course. Shall we meet in the lobby in ten minutes?”

“Make it twenty.”

“Very good.” Renault touched Ethan’s arm again. “Twenty minutes.”

Ethan turned and pushed through the doors, Renault watching him the entire time.

“Wow,” Benji breathed. “I mean, not to piss you off, Brandt, but wow. It was like that thing that birds do. Imprinting?”

Will edged towards the right, heading for the conference doors. “Imprinting?”

“Yeah, that thing that just happened? It’s like Falcon just imprinted at Mockingbird.”

“I think you mean, ‘on,’” Jane muttered. She passed Will on her way to the lobby doors, giving him a worried look. “And humans don’t imprint. Birds do.”

“Well, what do you call that?”

“Lust,” she said succinctly, frowning at Will one last time and then she was gone.

***

He was on the north-side elevator, heading to the eighteenth floor when Ethan made contact. “I’m in my room. We’ll regroup here.”

“Falcon?” Benji said. “Did you know that Mockingbird followed you?”

There was a moment of silence and then Ethan murmured, “He did?”

“Yeah. He took the lift right after yours, but it was commandeered by a group of elderly ladies. They stopped on the tenth floor and by the time they were all off, you were already in your room.”

“And?”

“And, when he got to your floor, he looked around, then got back on the lift.”

“Was he talking to anyone? By phone or surveillance?”

“Not that I could see.”

Jane spoke up. “If Mockingbird is just a computer geek, why would he follow you?”

“Better question,” Will added, “how did he know what floor you were on and does he have your room number?”

“Those are two questions,” Benji said.

Will ignored him. “Where’s he now?”

“Back in the lobby, talking with the concierge.”

No one spoke until Ethan said, “Okay. Get here as quick as you can. Falcon out.”

Ethan’s suite was on the opposite side from Will’s, three units down from the elevator bank. The door was open when he got there and even though he knew he was overreacting, he felt for his weapon and pushed the door open cautiously. And then sighed and let his hand drop.

Jane and Benji were already in there, arguing. Jane was pacing in front of the window and Benji was rooting around in the mini-bar.

“…and I’m saying we have a lot in common with birds, Jane. Why wouldn’t it be possible?”

“Because it’s just not, Benji.”

“Studies have shown that children can pick out their parent’s voices over hundreds of others.” Benji sat back on his heels, a bottle of mineral water in one hand, a bag of peanuts in the other. “How is that not imprinting?”

She stopped and opened her mouth to speak but just then the bedroom door opened.

They all turned as Ethan came out.

“So,” Benji said, looking Ethan up and down. “You’re going with, what, sexy island casual?”

Will glared at Benji and crossed his arms over his chest.

“I mean,” Benji went on, gesturing to Ethan’s skin-tight black knit shirt, the tan pants. “I like it. It looks…” He made another gesture, ending with a weak, “Casual? And sexy?”

Ethan rolled his eyes, then picked up his gear bag and tossed it on a chair. “What did you find?”

Jane sat down on the sofa. Benji joined her, saying mournfully, “Zip, zilch, nada. He seems to be what he seems. Just a numbers guy. A really rich numbers guy.”

“Then why did he follow Ethan?” Jane asked.

“You said lust, I said imprinting. Which are really the same thing so maybe it’s just that?”

Jane took a breath and Ethan held up his hand. He looked up at Will. “Brandt? What do you think?”

He shrugged. “Maybe it was foreplay? The stalking, I mean. Some guys get off on that.” The words burned his throat and he shifted from foot to foot.

Ethan cocked his head. “You really think that?”

“I don’t know. No—” He shook his head, shoving the unwanted memory back to where it belonged. “It’s out of character. His record is clean; no stalking or rape charges.” A lot of sexual encounters, yes—not unusual for someone who’d just come into a lot of money. “But whatever, it’s an oddity and oddities in our line of work are never a good thing.”

Ethan nodded slowly. “I agree. So…” He bent over the bag and began to root around in it. “Time for a change of plans. We go in like it’s a situation and we’ll take it as it goes. Benji, I don’t know what bar he’s taking me to, so stay with us in the van. Jane, I’d like to plant you ahead of time, but that’s clearly not going to work.”

“Maybe she can wear a mask and go as the driver?” Benji asked hopefully.

Jane frowned and asked, “Do you know what the driver looks like?” the same time Ethan shook his head and said, “No masks. We don’t have time. Brandt? You can’t be anywhere on the scene. Stay with Benji. If he finds something, or anything looks off, be prepared to come in, but stay out of sight.”

Will nodded even though Ethan’s back was turned. “Hey?”

“Yeah?” Ethan said without looking up.

“I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“Down there.” Will shrugged stiffly. He hadn’t meant to say anything, especially in front of Jane and Benji, but now it was too late. “About screwing up the job.”

Ethan looked over his shoulder. “That wasn’t your fault. I told you—these things happen.”

“Yeah, but—”

“Brandt. We know Renault likes smart blue-eyed men with an attitude problem. But other than that?”

Ethan shrugged and went back to searching for whatever he was searching for. It had to be tiny—the bag wasn’t that big. “Yeah, okay.”

“Besides,” Benji added, serious for once. “Now we know something’s up and that’s a good thing, right?”

Will nodded.

“I mean, without Renault imprinting on Ethan,” Benji glanced briefly at Jane, “we’d think he was just some guy that was like a kid in a candy shop and couldn’t make up his mind.”

“We get it, Benji,” Will growled.

“Okay.” Ethan straightened up, stuffing a small package into his pocket. “I’m heading out. You guys wait two minutes, then go down separately. We’ll do a comm check as soon as we’re on the road.”

Jane stood up. “Sounds good. I’m going to grab my gear. I’ll change in the van.”

Benji stood up as well. “I’ll do the same.” He looked down at his clothes. “Well, I won’t need to change, exactly, but I’ll get my stuff.”

They hurried towards the door. Will didn’t move.

“Brandt?”

He looked up. “Yeah?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” He smiled and turned to the door. “I’ve got to…” He waved vaguely.

“Yeah,” Ethan said slowly. “Okay.”

He left, out the door and down the hall, striding until he was practically jogging. He’d finally figured out what Ethan had gotten out of his bag. The IMF supplied all agents, male and female, with a small kit containing a condom, a small tube of lubricant and a spermicide.

And that was a good thing, right? It meant that Ethan was thinking clearly, objectively and that he was prepared to see the op through to the end.

And no reason at all for Will to feel as if someone had just punched him in the gut.

***

It was Benji that spoke for them all. “Well, this isn’t good.”

“No, it is not,” Jane murmured, peering through the windshield.

“So much for ‘just a drink’,” Will added quietly as Renault’s limo took the last turn into the marina. “Any chance there’s a bar at the pier?”

“Nope,” Benji said. “The club is closed for repairs, see?” He nodded to a sign that said just that.

“Yeah,” Will said. “That would be too easy. Any luck with the comms?”

Benji bent over his laptop. They’d traded seats when they’d realized that something or someone was jamming Ethan’s mic. Jane had taken the wheel while Benji got busy with his laptop in an attempt to track the source of the problem. He sighed. “No. Still down. Renault must be blocking the signal.”

The limo rolled to a stop near the boardwalk that separated the pier from the parking lot. Two men were waiting by a closed ice cream stand and when they saw the limo, they trotted forward. One popped the trunk and got out a suitcase while the other opened the back door. Renault slid out, then Ethan.

Renault said something and Ethan turned in a circle, making a show of looking around. He brushed his hair back, tapping his ear at the same time.

Will shook his head and said to himself, “No, Ethan, we can’t hear you, either.”

“So much for a spur of the moment invitation,” Jane muttered. “Who brings a suitcase on a date?”

“Maybe he carries his luggage all the time?” Benji offered up hopefully then shook his head. “No, you’re right. Something’s up.”

Renault put his hand on Ethan’s arm—the third time in the space of fifty minutes—and guided him to the jetty. They began to walk, the attendants following.

“Okay, this really isn’t good,” Benji said. “Do you see that?”

Jane dug out a pair of binoculars from the glove compartment and trained them on the scene.

“Yeah, we see it,” Will said. The group was ambling towards a small cruiser, docked at the end of the jetty. Small boats like that in an exclusive marina like this were generally only good for one thing. “Benji? How did you miss this?”

Benji shook his head. “I don’t know. There was nothing on his dossier about owning a boat.”

“Guys?” Jane said, still peering through the binoculars. “If they’re going where it looks like they’re going, it’s not just a boat. See?” She handed the binoculars to Will and yeah, it wasn't a boat, it was a freaking ship.

Anchored about six hundred feet away, it was at least a hundred feet in length with three decks, what looked like a jacuzzi on the main deck and— “Hey?” He shoved the binoculars at Benji. “Take a look. Is that antenna array normal?”

Benji took the binoculars. “Antenna arrays are pretty fancy these days; it would have to be—” He squinted through the glass, then said, “No, you’re right. They’ve been modified. Quite a bit. What is going on?”

Will rubbed his lower lip with his thumb, thinking furiously. Ethan and Renault had reached the cruiser. Renault gestured for Ethan to go first and Ethan did the same—even from this distance and without a scope, Will could see he was smiling. He was playing for time but there was nothing to play for—after a moment he climbed aboard. “We knew Renault was being wooed, right?”

Jane twisted in her seat. “Yeah.”

“But we thought he hadn’t accept an offer.”

She took a breath. “And now it looks like he has.”

He nodded. The cruiser took off, heading arrow-straight for the yacht. “A boat like that costs, what, maybe eight, ten million? Does he have that kind of money?”

“No,” Benji said. “His bank accounts generally stayed around a million, total. And no big deposits have come in. That’s why we assumed he hadn’t made a decision yet.”

“So either he’s come into a lot of cash or—”

“—or that’s not his boat,” Jane finished for him.

“Maybe it’s a bribe?” Benji asked. “So he’ll jump into bed with the latest and greatest?”

The cruiser slowed down and made a big arc, gliding around to the port side. Hopefully, they were just transferring the passengers. Hopefully, Ethan wasn’t being murdered where no one could see.

“Yeah, I think it’s a perk.” He grabbed the binoculars from Benji, ignoring his, “Hey!” and searched for any distinguishing identification. “I can’t see the name or registration number.” Which, at the very least, meant the yacht’s owner wasn’t American.

“Maybe the angle will be better if we circle round to the tip of the island,” Jane said.

“We don’t have time; they might be gone by then. Benji? Who were the bidders?”

Benji turned to his laptop, typing quickly. “On it.”

And, finally, there they were, first Ethan, then Renault, walking onto the aft deck like they were out for a Sunday stroll. Renault gestured  and Ethan dutifully nodded and smiled. At one point, when they got to the starboard rail, Ethan discreetly tapped his ear and Will tried again.

“Come in, Falcon, come in.” He waited, but there was no response from Ethan other than a smile when Renault took his arm to guide him in to the lounge. He dropped the binoculars. “Benji?”

“Yeah, okay. Our list is short. Our source assured us that Renault’s asking price jumped when the bidding war started—most of them fell out of the race, notably the small countries. But still…” He pointed to the screen. “So, our wooers are Neo Electronics, H&G Manufacturing, Consolidated and Hayashi Securities.”

Neo, H&G, Consolidated and Hayashi. Except for the usual corporate espionage, they were all legit, and had made no moves towards sudden growth. Except—

He leaned forward and grabbed Benji’s arm. “Look up H&G. Last year, IMF got a broadcast memo about a shuffling of their senior management. I want the details.”

“I will if you back off.” Benji jerked out of Will’s reach. “I can’t work with you pawing— Oh.”

Benji bent closer to the screen; Jane and Will tried to see, as well.

“I’ve got it. One of the original owners died, a Sir Ian Grenville-Pryce. ‘Grenville-Pryce,’” Benji mocked under his breath. “Bet his name was Smith when he started the company and changed it when—”

“Benji?” Jane cut in.

“Yeah, right. Grenville-Pryce died last year of massive heart failure. His second-in-command was ousted in what could only be called a coup, leaving an opening that was filled by a Maxine Spafford— Oh,” he said again, this time not cheerfully. He looked over at Jane, his eyes wide. “I thought she was in prison.”

“Who?” Jane tilted the screen her way. Her expression changed and she frowned. “Damnit. She was.”

Benji turned the laptop back his way. “Well, she was released two weeks ago.”

Will craned his neck to see what they were looking at. “Who’s Maxine Spafford?”

Benji gestured to the laptop. “Then what is she doing traipsing about the—”

“Who’s Maxine Spafford?” Will said, keeping his voice calm.

Jane shook her head. “She probably made a deal with the British government. That’s how—”

“Guys!” Will shouted, forgetting about calm. “Who the fuck is Maxine Spafford?”

Jane turned. “Maxine and Ethan had a run-in a few years ago. She was trying to buy the IMF’s NOC list under the name of—”

Will held up his hand. “Max,” he muttered because, yeah, now he remembered. It was before his time with the IMF, but the incident had sent ripples through the intelligence community. Maxine Spafford, known as ‘Max’ in her particular underworld, had been convicted of espionage and treason and was sentenced to thirty-eight years in prison. Long enough to ensure that she’d either die while incarcerated or be too old when released to return to her life of crime.

He rubbed his jaw. “Can you hack into H&G’s accounts, Benji?”

“No. I mean, I can, but it will take time and we haven’t got it, right?”

“No. I mean, right.”

Jane glanced between them. “So she’s got Ethan?”

“Well,” Benji shrugged. “We don’t know that. We don’t even know if she’s in the area or that is her boat. And if it is, she could just be wanting to catch up.”

“Benji,” Jane said quietly.

“Yeah, okay. She’s probably got Ethan. But look at the bright side—at least he’s not going to get…” He nodded confidingly and wriggled his eyebrows. “You know.”

Jane glared at him, then turned to Will. “So what do we do about it?”

“What do you think?”

She shrugged. “We don’t have a choice, do we? If Max is involved, this just turned into a rescue mission.”

“Agreed.”

***

In the end, after hurrying back to the hotel to formulate a plan and then arguing about it for twenty-five minutes, they decided they’d go sooner rather than later.

The hotel shop sold diving equipment they needed, but it was too late to rent a boat. They did the next best thing—they stole into the marina with all their gear, picked a boat nearest the fairway, then hotwired her. Well, Benji hotwired her—Will just gave him encouragement, saying things like, ‘Benji, this is taking too long. We gotta get going,’ and, ‘My grandma could do this faster than you.’ To his credit, Benji just ignored him and soon they were edging out of the slip onto open water.

They took a circuitous course to the yacht, approaching from the north in the hopes any guards or crew were watching the shoreline, and dropped anchor, just out of reach of the spotlights. They didn’t bother with a cover—they weren’t going to be in the boat long enough for anyone to ask them questions. They did, however, pause to assess the situation.

The yacht’s decks were clear of everyone but a single guard. Will’s best guess was that Ethan and Renault were in the lounge. The curtains were drawn, but it was lit from within and twice a shadow darkened one of the portholes.

So, time to go. He signaled and they stripped down to their wet suits, got their masks on and slid into the water.

It was colder than Will expected and by the time they’d made it to the side of the yacht, taking the last twenty feet underwater, he was shivering.

They gathered in the relative safety of the portside stairs, bobbing up and down with the waves.

Jane signaled and Will nodded. Their plan was fairly simple—they’d breach by way of the angled ladder, then Will would approach from the starboard side, Jane and Benji from the port. They'd take the guard in a pincer movement and then rescue Ethan.

He grabbed the ladder, dragged himself out of the water, then slipped off his fins and mask. He crept to the top and waited for Benji and Jane. When they joined him, they climbed over the bulwark rail and crouched on the gangway, listening for calls or shouts of alarm. Nothing. He signaled—they rose and got going.

He didn’t quite make it. As he was edging around an inconveniently placed post, he heard footsteps, then an indrawn breath, and finally, the tip of a rifle. He grabbed the barrel, using it as leverage to jerk the guard forward. A quick strike of elbow to jaw and the guard moaned and dropped to his knees. Will caught him and dragged him to the other side of the now conveniently placed post. He bound him to a cleat, then gagged him just in case. He picked up the rifle and padded aft.

He scanned the area, then crept up to the lounge door and pressed his ear to the wood panel. No shouts or screams of pain, which meant nothing really. A soft creak of wood made him turn. It was Jane and Benji, inching around the corner of the cabin. Jane was carrying an M16 that wasn’t IMF issue and when he raised his eyebrows, she shook her head and mouthed, ‘Later.’

He couldn’t agree more. Time was breathing down his neck saying that they were taking too long. That Ethan had been on the boat for almost three hours now and if everything was fine, he would've found a way to let them know. He took a deep breath, wondering which would be worse—seeing Ethan having sex with Renault or being bound and tortured by Max.

A stupid question, really, and he raised his hand, signaling three, two, one—

He kicked the door in, rushing in at a low crouch, weapon aimed, followed by Jane, taking the high position.

He froze. Because Ethan wasn’t being fucked by Renault or being tortured.

He was sitting on a sofa, drinking what looked like tea.

“See?” a female voice called out from somewhere in the back of the long lounge. “They’re fine. They are very good, by the way, you were right about that. I didn’t hear a thing.” She came forward, moving gracefully around the furniture. She was about seventy, wearing an expensive looking dress and carrying a cup and saucer. She smiled at Will, adding, “I told you not to worry. And my men?”

Will shot Ethan a quick look. He felt as if he’d stepped into a play with no idea of his lines. “Max, I presume?” he finally said weakly.

She sat on the sofa, next to Ethan. “You presume correctly.” She took a sip of whatever was in the cup and murmured, “Are my men alive? If they’re not, I’m not going to be happy.”

He was still crouched, still aiming. He straightened, feeling every muscle protest; he didn’t drop the rifle. “They’re alive.” At least, his guy was—he didn’t know about Jane’s.

“Good. Now, dear boy,” she turned to Ethan and smiled. “Introductions are in order, but let me. The girl is Jane, of course, but which one is William?”

Screw it. If he were going to be made a fool of, he might as well be comfortable. He flicked the safety on and laid the rifle on the table next to the ruined door. “I am.” He strolled to a chair that matched the sofa and sat, hoping Max would say something to the fact that he was getting her furniture all wet.

She just nodded. “It’s good to meet you. I’ve been hearing a lot about all of you. Would you like tea? I’ve scones—they were made just this morning.”

“I’m not thirsty and I’m not hungry.”

Benji stepped forward and waved. “I could use a cuppa.”

Max smiled. “And you must be Benji. Please, join us.”

With a ‘What the hell’ glance at Will, Benji hurried forward. He took the seat next to Max and as she poured the tea, Will looked sideways at Ethan, asking, ‘What were you telling her?’

Ethan rubbed his chin, then shook his head slightly.

He sighed in relief. So, Ethan hadn’t been telling Max all about them. Well, it was good to know he hadn’t totally lost it.

“There,” Max said, giving the cup to Benji. “William, you seem upset.” She sat back and patted Ethan’s arm again as if she just liked touching him, then smiled at Will.

He smiled back at her. He was going to nonchalant about this, even if it killed him. He crossed his legs—hard to do considering he was still wearing his wet suit even if it was a shorty—and said politely, “I’m not upset, ma’am.”

‘Ma’am.’ Please, call me Max.” She looked over at the door where Jane still stood. “Jane, please, sit. Have something to drink. You must be thirsty after all that hard work.”

Jane put a hand on her hip, still holding the rifle. “Not until I know what’s going on.”

“I promise you, my dear, the tea isn’t poisoned.”

“What about Ethan?”

“I’m fine, Jane,” Ethan said, throwing Will a quick look. “She hasn’t compromised me in any way.” He took another sip of tea.

Jane shook her head. “We should do a DNA check, just to make sure.”

“Jane, I know you didn't bring the kit,” Ethan said mildly. “We can take care of it when we get back to the hotel."

"Ethan—"

"Jane. It was just a misunderstanding.”

Max made a face. “The misunderstanding was Monsieur Renault’s. He thought I would be receptive to his little…” She hesitated, then finished with a cool, “Gift.”

“He tried to sell me to Max,” Ethan added.

“Yes,” Max said. “Apparently, he read about my release from prison. He did a little hacking and found out about my adventures with Ethan and thought he’d cash in on it.”

Will glanced between them. 'Adventures.' Seriously? “Where is he and where is his security detail?” Now that the op was over, he couldn’t figure out what he was feeling. Relief? Anger? Confusion?

“They're in his own closet,” Ethan said. “Secured with every tie and rope I could find.”

Benji snorted and muttered under his breath, “So much for a rescue mission.”

Max shrugged elegantly. “He thought, after my years of incarceration, I’d be vengeful and angry.”

Jane frowned. “You’re not?”

Instead of answering, Max patted the seat again. “You’re making my neck hurt, Jane, looking up at you. Please, sit.”

Jane finally came forward, taking the chair next to Will’s. She rested the rifle across thighs. “What happened?”

Max gestured gracefully. “Prison gave me a lot of time to think. I’m not saying I’ve been completely rehabilitated, but I’ve changed.”

“You found religion?” Will asked, not attempting to keep the snideness from his voice.

Max shrugged. “I’ll leave that to the truly damned. No, I decided my time on earth is much too short to be bothering with criminal activities. I’m going straight.” She took a breath, then cocked her head and smiled winsomely. “Well, straightish.”

He smiled, hoping it was just as winsome. “That’s great, that’s nice. Ethan…” He turned to Ethan and let his smile drop. “Whose boat is this and why the hell didn’t you contact us?” Okay, the winner in the emotion trifecta was anger. A hell of a lot of anger.

Ethan frowned. “I’m sorry about that. I tried. As soon as Max got here, I contacted you. And I’ve been trying to contact you for the last forty-five minutes.”

They all turned to look at Benji.

Who was busy sipping his tea and eyeing the scones. He glanced up, then said, mostly into his teacup, “Yeah, about that. I turned off our comms when we got in the boat. I figured if Renault was snooping, no sense in letting him find us.”

“Benji—” Jane sighed.

“You remember the Kremlin, Jane? And what happened there?”

Before she could answer, Max said, "As to the boat, Renault asked to meet me, saying he hadn't a holiday in months. I offered him my boat." She shrugged. "It seemed the nice thing to do, considering he wanted to go into business with me."

So much for 'straightish.' "Ethan?" Will leaned forward but Ethan stood up.

“We’ll talk about it when we assess the mission.”

“What about Renault?” Will said, glancing between Ethan and Max. “We can’t just leave her here with him. What if he gets loose?”

Max actually laughed. “My dear, you are charming.” She held out her hand for Ethan to help her up.

Will closed his mouth. He didn’t feel charming. He felt tired and let down and yeah, still angry.

“Max will be fine, Brandt,” Ethan said. “I’d worry more about Renault, if I were you.”

“Yes,” Max said, still chuckling. “I’ll deliver him to a certain someone that will make good use of him. Legitimate use, I might add.”

It was on the tip of Will’s tongue to ask, ‘Do we want to know?’ when he decided, no, he didn’t want to know.

“Now,” Max said, taking Ethan’s arm. “I’ve a launch on its way for you. You go gather up your swimming things and get on board. It will take you to your little boat and then you can all be on your way.”

She turned to the door. As if they were her guests or children, not three seasoned operatives on a mission to rescue their leader. Jane gave him a strange look, as if saying, ‘Is she for real?’

He just shrugged and gestured, ‘After you.’ They got up and followed her.

The launch was already there, docked snugly against the yacht. The captain was sitting astride the bulwark, rigging a makeshift ladder.

Max leaned over the railing. The wind was picking up, making her dress flutter and whip. “Be careful, Ethan. I don’t want you to get hurt, you know.”

“I will, Max. And, as always, it’s good seeing you.”

She held her arms out and he stepped into her embrace. Will glanced away, telling himself it was none of his business if Ethan was hugging a known criminal, no matter how rehabilitated.

Ethan went first, slithering over the railing smoothly like he was born to it. Jane went next, then Benji. Will was waiting his turn when Max touched his arm.

“William,” she said, “Tell me, what’s wrong with him? With Ethan?”

He frowned. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“He seems different. More serious. What happened?”

He hesitated. It wasn’t his story to tell, but… “He got married. And his wife was murdered.”

She nodded. “Ah. And that’s the whole of it?”

He couldn’t help a startled, bitter laugh. “That’s not enough?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, that was rude. It’s just…” She shook her head again. “It seems something more than that.”

There was a shout from the other boat. He jerked his thumb. “I’ve got to go.”

She gathered herself and nodded. “Yes, of course. Go.”

He swung one leg over the railing, but she had one more thing to say.

“Take care of him, will you?”

He paused. He hadn’t done a good job of taking care of Ethan in the past—he’d proved that, literally. But he could hardly tell her that, so he just said, “I will.”

“Any time, Brandt!” Ethan shouted from below.

She made a shooing gesture and he climbed over.

***

The ride back was as silent as the ride out.

No one spoke as Ethan piloted the cruiser back into its slip. As they hurried to the van and Benji got it—and themselves—away from the marina with no one the wiser.

At one point, Will started to say that he couldn’t wait to get out of the wet suit, but he took one look at Ethan’s drawn face and his complaint died, unborn.

They were back at the hotel, on the elevator going up, when Benji finally broke the silence. “Well, that was fun, wasn’t it?”

They all looked at him.

“I mean,” he backpedaled. “It was nice, wasn’t it, getting out into the water? It was so warm. I mean, it’s not like Geneva. That was freezing.”

“Benji?” Ethan said quietly.

“Yeah?”

He reached into his pocket and pulled out a jump drive and a small notebook. In all the hubbub, Will had forgotten their original objective. “I’ve glanced at book but the cipher isn’t anything I’ve come across and this…” He raised the drive. “Is from Max. It’s the details of their negotiations. When you get time, make printouts of the drive's contents and give them to Brandt for analysis. It'll probably take you a while to decode the book, so don't worry about that until we get back to headquarters.”

Benji took the drive and the notebook. “Will do,” he said absently, already thumbing through it.

The elevator doors opened. Will nodded goodnight to Benji, ignored Ethan, then followed Jane down the hall.

They were almost to their rooms when Jane spoke. “That was kind of fun.”

He raised an eyebrow. “How do you figure?”

“Meeting Max. She’s fascinating.”

“She’s a criminal.”

“Ex. She’s an ‘ex’ criminal.”

He just shrugged. He was too tired to get into a philosophical discussion about the facets of redemption and the value of epiphanies.

“Well,” Jane said. “Goodnight.”

“Yeah, goodnight.”

She unlocked her door and had just turned the handle when he called out softly, “Hey, Jane?”

She turned. “Yeah?”

“I’m sorry about that crack. About Moreau and the window and the…” He trailed off.

She smiled wanly. “Thanks.”

He nodded.

“Goodnight,” she said again.

“'Night.”

He waited until he heard her throw the deadbolt, then scanned the corridor.

There was no one to be seen, nothing to be heard. If he were an imaginative man, he’d think he were all alone in the world with no one at his back or side. Like it had been months ago, working for a man he admired, yes, but having no real connections, no real friends.

He frowned at the path his thoughts had taken and opened his door.

He undressed. Peeling off his shirt and jeans, then, much more carefully, the wet suit. His carried it to the bathroom, tossed it in the sink and looked at himself in the mirror. His skin was covered with a fine layer of salt. He brushed his fingers across his chest and held his hand to the light. His fingertips were white and he rubbed them together.

He showered, scrubbing his skin and hair, making sure all the salt was washed away. He dried off the same way, roughly, quickly, telling himself he was hurrying because he was tired and needed to get to bed.

When he was done, he wrapped the towel around his waist and padded out to the bedroom. His room wasn’t as fancy as Ethan’s. It didn’t have a balcony or separate sitting room. It was just a large bedroom with a large bathroom.

But not, apparently, large enough because as soon as he’d walked to the window, he felt the need to turn around and walk to the bed. And then back again, and again until he was pacing, body stiff, mind blank.

Damnit.

He came to a halt by the bed. What was wrong with him? Normally, after a mission, he’d sit down and write up his report or, if the mission had been especially difficult, he’d go for a run, forcing his body to exhaustion.

He could start the report but not finish it; he’d have to wait until Benji did his thing. So that gave him time for a run. The beach was within stone’s reach, even though it was almost midnight, even though the tide was high.

He was still standing there, undecided, when a soft purr broke his impasse. He found his trousers, got out his cell and glanced at the screen. Benji. Pretty much the last person he wanted to talk to, but whatever, it was the job. “What’s up?”

“Just wanted to let you know I’ve printed out the messages between Renault and Max—”

“What about the book?”

“Eh, yeah, Ethan was right—that’s gonna take some time.”

“Can’t figure it out?”

“I will.”

He smiled, not nicely, at Benji’s offended tone.

“Anyway, I printed them out if you want to get started on the analysis.”

There was no way in hell he was going to work tonight, not after the day he’d had, but he found himself saying, “Sure. Give me a minute.”

He tossed the phone on the bed, then got dressed again.

***

When he got to Benji’s room, the door was already open. He leaned in and looked around. Except for the gear strewn all over the place, the room was empty.

“We’re down here.”

He leaned back out. Benji was in the doorway of Ethan’s suite, waving.

When he got to Ethan's room, Benji was propped up against the wall, hands shoved in his pockets. Ethan was standing next to the sofa, reviewing the printouts. He’d just showered. His hair was wet and he was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. His feet were bare.

Will touched his throat, forgetting he wasn’t wearing a tie.

“There wasn't much.”

He glanced up. “Hmm?”

“There wasn't much,” Benji said again, nodding to the papers in Ethan’s hands.

“There’s enough,” Ethan murmured. “It won’t take you long, Brandt. You can leave it for the morning.”

He nodded vaguely. He needed to stop staring at Ethan’s feet. Bare skin wasn’t unusual—they’d all stripped and gotten dressed in front of each other more than a few times. It wasn’t that unusual but it was as if his body had a mind of its own and it was a long, awful moment before he managed to look away.

Unlike Benji’s room, Ethan’s was neat and tidy, no clothing or personal effects in sight. It was a character trait Will had noticed long ago when he’d first been assigned the task of guarding an asset and his new wife. The minute the couple had arrived at a hotel, she would unpack, spreading her things around the room. But the man kept his clothes in his suitcase and his suitcase on a chair.

At the time, Will had assumed it was habit and it was only after the Hendricks job that he’d realized it was necessity. That Ethan was waiting for the perfect moment to put his plan into action.

Still, he wondered, for the first time, if Julia had noticed and what she’d thought.

The realization made his stomach ache and he touched his chest again.

“Benji?” Ethan said absently. “You did a good job today. Go get some rest.”

Benji pushed away from the wall. “Thanks. Sweet dreams.”

Will stepped aside for him as he left the room, nodding goodnight. He turned back to Ethan.

“Everything okay?” Ethan asked, still reading.

The same question he’d asked earlier and was it really just hours ago? It seemed a hell of a lot longer. “Yeah,” he muttered. “It’s all good.”

“You sure?”

He sighed and said with as much patience as he could muster, “Yes.”

“Okay,” Ethan said, finally looking up. “There’s a name on here I don’t recognize—Herrera. See what you can find out about him.” He smiled and held the papers out.

Will crossed the short space, feeling as if the air had suddenly thickened. There was something going on here, some subtle wrongness and if he weren’t so damn tired, he’d know what it was because that’s what he did, right? Figure things out? Analyze and theorize? “Okay.” He reached out and took the papers. Or tried to because Ethan didn't let go.

“Will?”

And that was wrong, too. Ethan had never called him by his given name which was how it should be. Anything else would be unprofessional, never mind too intimate. “Yeah?”

Instead of answering, Ethan tugged the papers out of his hand and went to the door and closed it.

Trapped.

“What’s going on?” he asked lightly.

“You tell me. You’ve been acting strange ever since we started this job.”

“I’m fine. The op had a few twists, yeah, but I’m fine.”

Ethan tossed the papers on a side table and sat on the back of the sofa. “It’s my fault.”

Will laughed, a burst of humor that held no humor. “What are you talking about?”

“Did you know that during the Cobalt job, Jane and I had a talk?”

He shook his head. He’d wondered, of course, what they’d discussed in the plane’s tiny berth, but had dismissed it as none of his business.

Ethan shrugged. “I had to make sure she was up for it. Seduction isn’t as easy as everyone thinks it will be. I should have—”

“I’m not Jane,” Will interrupted with a growl. He wanted to move but he felt as if his feet were glued to the very expensive carpeting. If he could, he’d turn and rush the door, kick it down like he’d done on Renault’s boat.

“I know you’re not,” Ethan said quietly. “But the power dynamics were different and I should have—”

“Ethan,” he interrupted again, no longer worried about minor things like first names and politeness and not being rude to the man who was essentially his boss. “It wasn’t your fault. Nothing happened.”

“But it could have.”

“But it didn’t.”

Ethan shrugged. “But it could—”

And he was unglued, across the floor in three long steps, grabbing Ethan by the biceps, in his face, practically hissing, “It wasn’t me with my ass on the line, remember? It wasn’t me on that fucking boat, being sold to the highest bidder.”

Ethan opened his mouth, but Will got there first. “And if you ever do that to me again, I’ll shoot you myself, got it? We stay in touch, no matter the situation. I don’t care if it’s a flare or a smoke signal or goddamn Morse code, we stay in touch. Got it?”

Ethan took a breath to speak, but again, Will got there first in the worst possible way—he tightened his hands into fists and lunged.

It was biting more than kissing, harsh and punishing and he couldn’t seem to stop even though he’d always prided himself on his control and—

And.

Ethan wasn’t kissing him back. Was in fact, just sitting there, taking it.

Will told his hands to stop grabbing and after a second, they did. He released Ethan and stepped back.

Ethan’s face was flushed and his eyes were narrowed. His was lip bleeding.

Will shook his head. That did not just happen. “Ethan.”

“I knew it.”

Said as if he were in a trance or a daze and Will tried again, “Ethan…”

“Jane asked me. Benji asked me. They all wanted to know what was wrong with you. I told them you were fine, but I—” He shook his head, just slightly. “But I knew it.”

Time to amend, backpedal, whatever he had to do get out of the room, and screw his career with the IMF. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

Ethan licked the blood off his lower lip. Just that one small little thing and it shouldn’t be so sexy and Will retreated, another step.

“Will?” Ethan murmured.

“Yeah?”

“I’ve killed grown men with my eyes blindfolded and one hand tied behind my back. Do you really think you could do anything to me I didn’t want you to do?”

He stilled. Ethan was watching him steadily, no trace of humor in his expression, waiting—

How did he miss this? The ‘some’ comment the day before notwithstanding, there was nothing in Ethan’s file about any relationships with men.

So much his brilliant career as an analyst. It was probably a good thing that was over.

Ethan smirked like he knew what Will was thinking, then folded his hands in his lap. “And that’s it? You have nothing more to say? How about another apology? Or are you going to run from this like you ran the first time?”

And fuck, that broke his paralysis. He straightened up. “I didn’t run.”

“Sure you did. You freaked out and you ran. All the way back to Washington. Where you could sit behind a desk and pretend nothing had happened.”

One more step, this time forward. “Ethan, shut up.”

Ethan shook his head. “No. I tried that. For almost a year, I tried that and you know what? I’m as tired from running from it as you have to be.”

He smiled, that cocky, smartass smile that Will hadn’t seen in a long time and if he wanted to get a reaction, it worked.

Will lunged again, this time leaping on Ethan, sending them both over the couch and onto the cushions and, yeah, he was quick, but Christ, Ethan was almost quicker. Grabbing him by the shoulders, using his legs and unstoppable momentum to twist and roll and then they were on the floor, Will on his back, Ethan on top.

He tensed, scenarios running like flash fire through his mind, strategies and tactics because Ethan would no doubt use his weakness against him—that’s what anyone would do.

Only…

Ethan wasn’t smiling in triumph and he wasn’t angry. He was staring down at Will with a strange look of compassion. “Do you remember Mexico City?”

“Yeah.” He was caught between the sofa and Ethan and something dull was digging into his back. He pushed but Ethan didn’t budge. “What about it?”

“When we made the handoff and you missed the courier and then I missed the boat, literally?”

“Yeah, so?” Ethan was heavier than he looked and his thigh was about a half inch from Will’s dick, the almost-pressure a tease—he’d give anything to move to the left but instead he tried to move to the right.

“We regrouped at the safe house and you know what you did? First thing?”

He shook his head. He didn’t remember much of the aftermath, just that he’d been happy to be done with the op.

“Jane and Benji were sitting at the table. I was cleaning the wound where Janson had got me and you walked in. And the first thing you did before anything else was sit on the couch, all the way on the other side of the room.” Ethan’s hands and voice softened with remembrance. “You were so angry and I asked myself—we both screwed up—so what? We got the intel we were after, we got out alive. But there you were, distancing yourself again, so damn angry. There was nothing really to be angry about, so why?”

Ethan’s soft voice stopped.

“And?” Will asked gruffly.

“And then,” Ethan shrugged. “I realized, it was me.”

Will forced a laugh again, this one even less successful than the first. “It was you, was it?”

“Yeah, me. At first I thought it was just your training, that you’d never given up the guard detail even though you weren’t on guard detail anymore. But it wasn’t that, was it?”

Will didn’t move, didn’t speak.

“Because I realized it was something else.” Ethan leaned closer, his breath warming Will’s lips. “Did you know that when we were in Croatia, I always knew when it was you shadowing me and not one of the other guys. When I’d go for a run, it was like I could feel you even though I didn’t know who you were and sometimes I—”

Ethan stopped and swallowed and they stared at each other, just a bare  inch of air separating them and Will remembered how it had been, that odd sense that he was being pulled whenever he’d ghosted Ethan, one eye on his surroundings, but the other—

Ethan was a smooth runner with a smooth gait—once he hit his pace, he never varied. And Will would be right behind, keeping his distance, watching the muscle play under Ethan’s wet t-shirt and sweats. It had been mesmerizing and he’d had to remind himself that the asset was married and untouchable. That he was there for: protection, vigilance and duty.

Duty.

He’d been good at what he’d done—quick with decisions and quick on his feet but now it seemed as if he’d lived his life as a kind of robot, someone who only answered with rote no’s and maybe’s.

Someone who used caution as a reason when it was really only an excuse.

“No,” he heard himself mutter.

Ethan frowned. “No, what?”

He looked Ethan right in the eye. “No more running. Ethan—”

He parted his lips but this time it was Ethan who moved first. Leaning down to brush his lips against Will’s.

Soft and good. No more biting, no more pain—he needed to make it soft and good because if this was the only time he’d get this, it needed to last. So he opened Ethan’s lips with his tongue, licking his lower lip delicately, apologizing silently.

Ethan groaned deep in his throat and ground his hip against Will’s crotch and Will forgot about soft and good because damn…

Ethan was whip-cord lean, fitting onto him, same everything—chest, hips, legs—like he was made for him and he could probably do just this forever, just kiss Ethan forever.

“Will?”

Ethan’s hair was still damp, grazing his cheek, and he combed his fingers through the wet strands and nosed under the sharp curve of Ethan's jaw, over and up to his ear. “Yeah?”

“Can we—?”

He bit Ethan’s earlobe.

Ethan arched into him, gasping. “Shit. Again.

He did it again, taking small bites as he mapped out the hard line of Ethan’s neck, then under and down where tendon met muscle. “What? Can we, what?” he murmured into Ethan’s skin.

“There’s a comfortable bed, about twenty-five feet away.”

He stopped kissing and pulled back. Ethan’s face was flushed and his eyes were shining. “I’m fine here.” He proved his point by running his fingers down Ethan’s back and then up again, slipping under Ethan’s t-shirt to stroke warm skin and hard muscle.

Ethan closed his eyes partway, but shook his head. “Brandt?”

“Yeah, all right.” He rolled free, grabbing Ethan’s hand as he rose, staggering a bit because his legs didn’t seem to want to work. “If we must, we must.”

“We must.”

***

They didn’t make it to the bed.

They got just past the doorway and Will, distracted by Ethan’s mouth and hands, caught his heel on the leg of the chair next to the door.

They fell against the doorjamb and he figured, ‘What the hell,’ and slid, taking Ethan with him.

They landed in an awkward pile, Ethan sort of in his lap, one leg over his thigh.

And so what if it wasn’t a comfortable bed, twenty-five feet away? So what if it was a stupid angle that would never work. When he slipped his hungry hands down the back of Ethan’s jeans to grab his ass, Ethan hissed and rocked against him, dick already hard.

And yeah, it was enough.

***

They untangled themselves, not carefully enough. Sometime between each of them coming, Ethan had jammed his bad leg under Will’s thigh and when he rose, he winced. He grabbed his shin, muttering, “Damn it.”

Will pressed his palm over Ethan’s hand. “It’s still giving you problems? I thought you said it was better?”

“It was,” Ethan muttered. “Kind of.” He turned to the bed and pulled up his jeans.

‘Kind of.’

Shorthand for, ‘It’s still fucked up, but what can I do about it?’ Short for, ‘The job is the job.’ Permanent injury was the one thing most agents truly feared; once something was broken or torn, there was always the chance it would break or tear again, possibly at the wrong moment. He was lucky, so far, but Ethan had been in the game longer—his years in the IMF were numbered and he probably knew it.

But that was a worry for another time when he had time to think.

Ethan was still facing the bed, one hand on the comforter, not moving. “You should go,” he said, without turning around.

Will nodded. He should. It was almost midnight and their flight was scheduled for eight. He needed at least six hours of sleep and then there were the intel to analyze, reports to begin, never mind he had to get in a workout in or he’d be sore in twenty-four hours.

“You should go,” Ethan repeated, this time half turning.

He nodded again.

“Will?”

He cocked his head. “Should I?” Not something he’d meant to say but now that the words were out there, he really wanted to know. Should he go?

Ethan turned.

The room was dark, lit by the single lamp in the main room and weak moonlight. Ethan was only a blue-grey figure in the gloom which meant he couldn’t see Will all that well, either. But even with the relative dark and the distance and the sex, Will felt as if he were stripped bare, truly exposed for the first time. Because getting in that bed with Ethan and lying with him would somehow be different than random sex on a hotel floor. It would be intentional and unequivocal and not something easily dismissed in the morning.

But he’d said it himself just twenty minutes ago—no more running. And that included from himself and what he wanted.

So, he kicked off his shoes and peeled off his socks, his movements calm and deliberate. Then he stood up and slowly stripped, dropping each piece of clothing to the floor while Ethan watched silently.

When he was done, he walked slowly to the bed. Ethan hadn’t moved, but his hands had curled into fists, and his eyes were wide. Will reached out and gripped Ethan’s waist with both hands, then pushed him down on the bed.

Ethan looked up at him and Will ran his hands down, from waist to thighs to calves, yanking Ethan’s jeans and shorts off and over his shoulder in a move that he hoped seemed sexy and not greedy.

Ethan smiled and scooted backwards. Will followed on his hands and knees and then they were under the covers, on their sides and it felt too good, the cool everywhere but where Ethan was touching him. He tugged the sheets back so he could see, then, gauging Ethan’s reaction he began to explore, asking without speaking.

‘Is this okay?’ when he traced the vein that curved from the outside of Ethan’s forearm to his bicep, first with his fingers and then with his tongue. ‘Does that feel good?’ when he made the logical leap from biceps to nipples, tasting salt and soap.

And Ethan answered each time, moving restlessly underneath, almost passive at first, saying just as soundlessly, ‘Yes,’ and, ‘more,’ and, ‘there.’

It was eerily like a dream, out of focus and blurry, and he was wondering if it was a dream because the day had been so fucked up when he got to the hollow made by Ethan's hip. He mouthed the curve, following the crease of groin and thigh and Ethan gasped, grabbing his head and shoulder.

"Will."

So, not a dream and he couldn't help his smile as he licked again, harder, breaking out into a sweat, hot and cold at the same time.

"Will," Ethan said again, this time not asking but ordering.

"Yeah, okay." He shoved Ethan's legs apart and slid between them, whispering, "Touch me, Ethan," already rocking, searching for anything that would—

“Here,” Ethan said. He reached down and stroked Will's dick, his hand hot and perfect. "Here."

“Yeah,” he murmured, kissing whatever was under his mouth, finding his place as he got to work.

 

***

He didn’t quite pass out.

He tried to, flat on his back, arms spread wide because—damn—but his senses stayed online.

He heard Ethan rise and get up to check the doors, close the curtains and turn off the light. He heard him zip something and snap something. He even heard him pad across the carpet to come stand by the bed.

He wanted to open his eyes and say something but it was too much effort so he just patted the mattress. Ethan snorted and climbed into bed, crawling over him to get to the other side, probably deliberately clumsy.

Normally, this would be the awkward time when he'd wonder about leaving and ramifications, but he didn't give worry a foothold. He turned on his side and dragged Ethan closer, then slung his leg over Ethan's thighs and buried his face in his neck. And fell asleep.

***

A loud ring woke him. He jerked up, a split second of wondering where and who and then remembered. He flopped back down and covered his eyes with his arm. “Shit,” he muttered; he’d just had the best sleep—dreamless and unbroken. “Shit,” he said again, this time louder.

“Shh.”

He peered from under his arm. Ethan was sitting on the edge of the bed, back to the room, cell pressed to his ear.

“Hello?” There was a pause and then Ethan said, “What did she say?”

Apparently whoever ‘she’ was had a lot to say because the next few seconds were mostly Ethan nodding.

Will turned on his side and watched. It was morning. Faint sunlight filtered in through the parted drapes, throwing a stripe of pale yellow across Ethan’s body. He raised his hand and traced the bright line over Ethan’s shoulder, then his bicep, imagining his finger was his tongue.

“Okay,” Ethan finally said. “Keep me posted.” He leaned sideways, as if getting ready to hang up and then he stilled. “No,” he said. “Everything’s fine. Why?” He glanced over his shoulder at Will. “No, he’s fine. I think.” There was another pause and then, “Yeah, I’ll be down in an hour. Okay, bye.”

He disconnected then sat the cell on the nightstand, still turned towards Will. “That was Benji. Max delivered Renault to the authorities. He’s being processed as we speak. He didn’t hear you leave.”

He frowned. How did Renault get back to the hotel? “Huh?”

“Benji. Benji’s worried we got in a fight because he heard a loud thump last night and he didn't hear you leave.”

He wanted to be amused, but mostly he was just freaked out. “Do you want me to go?”

Ethan didn’t hesitate. “No. I want you to stay where you are.”

“Are you sure?” There would be fallout, questions and accusations and he thought about what path that fallout would take.

Ethan shook his head again. “You know what?”

“What,” he answered absently. An inquiry would look bad on his record, sure, but—

“You worry too much.”

His mouth dropped open in real astonishment that quickly morphed into fake. Well, yeah, he worried too much. It was who he was.

“But,” Ethan added, slipping back under the sheets, “that’s a good thing.” He turned on his side and mirrored Will’s position, hand tucked under his cheek.

“Why?”

“Because we make a good team.”

“You mean when you do something stupid, I’ll be there to remind you that it was stupid?”

Ethan grinned. “Hopefully you’ll remind me before I do something stupid, but yeah.”

The stream of pale light had grown stronger and moved a little to the north, highlighting Ethan’s cheek and mouth a bright gold. “Will you listen to me?”

“I’ll try.”

It was a surprise, both the concession and how it made him feel. He had to swallow before saying, “And I’ll try to stop worrying.”

“It’s a deal.” And then, “Will?”

“Yeah?”

Ethan reached out and ran his thumb across Will's chin, whispering, “Aren’t you going to ask me why?”

He frowned and started to say, ‘What do you mean?’ and then closed his mouth again. Because he knew what Ethan was really asking.

The life they led, it was so brutal. Not just the missions and the danger, but the loneliness. Jane had found something with Hanaway, but most agents either indulged in a series of affairs or became monks. Some liked it that way, but some—

Even though he hadn’t been in for the entire play, he’d been there for the final act. Watching from the sidelines as Ethan gave up his attempt at building a normal life. And later, when he'd been told the truth, he hadn't been angry at the deception, just a little sad that Ethan's failure wasn't the result of who he was, but of who he wasn't.

But at least Ethan tried. Even at the time, Will remembered thinking, 'At least he'd tried.'

Because he'd never had the guts to do the same, knowing without the acid test of experience that he'd never be able to give someone up for the job, just as he'd never be able to give the job up for someone. He'd wanted his cake and to eat, too, so he'd never tried.

But he couldn't say anything of that, so he just murmured, “No, I know why,” and kissed Ethan’s palm.

***

Luther was waiting for them at the airport lounge, right where he’d said he’d be. He and Ethan clasped hands and embraced, then he looked around at the team. “So, Max, huh?”

Ethan nodded. “Yeah.”

“And she really saved your ass?”

“Well…” Ethan shrugged. “The team did their part.”

“We sure did,” Benji said. “Saved the world and all that.”

Jane rolled her eyes. “It was hardly the world, Benji—”

“Just a small portion of it,” Will finished for her, giving Ethan a lightning quick glance.

Ethan smiled in return then looked away.

“Guys?” Luther said slowly, glancing between Will and Ethan. “Give us a minute?”

Benji stuck his hands in his pockets and bounced on his toes. “Sure, whatever you need. Is this about the boat, because I didn’t—”

Jane grabbed Benji’s arm and tugged him away, still talking. Will nodded to Ethan and Luther, then followed the others out to the concourse. They waited by a potted plant as Luther and Ethan talked about whatever they were talking about.

Which didn’t concern Will at all. Ethan and Luther had known each other for years and this was what friends and colleagues did when a mission was over—review and discuss. It was nothing.

And he told himself that even as he muttered, “I’ll be right back,” and jerked his head to the men’s bathroom. He left before Jane could question or Benji could follow.

He strolled down the concourse to the bathrooms and as soon as he’d cleared the escalator and was out of sight, he ducked behind a stand of phone kiosks. He got the earwig out of his breast pocket and fitted it into his ear telling himself that just because Ethan was wearing the tie with the mic, it might not be transmitting, thanks to Renault and his busy hands.

He heard nothing at first, just some static, and then…

“…no, we think she’s really gone legit now,” Luther said. “We’ve got some people on her, but she knows that.”

“Tell them to be careful. She may be in her seventies, but she’s still dangerous.”

“I’ll tell them. And the team? How’d that go?”

“We still have to work out some kinks, but they’re solid,” Ethan answered. “I’ve got a meeting with Brassel on Tuesday to let him know we’re ready for the big stuff.”

“And Brandt? Any more…” Luther hesitated, then said, “Misgivings?”

“No, none.”

“None?”

“No. He’s good. We’re good.”

There was a pause and then Luther said, “C’mon, Ethan.”

“What?”

“You forget how well I know you.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m good at my job. It means I know something’s going on between you two.”

“Luther—”

“Don’t even try, brother. Or would you like me to ask him?”

Ethan didn’t speak for a moment, then he muttered, “I know what you’re going to say.”

“What am I going to say?”

“Everything you’ve said before. That it’s stupid. Dangerous. That a normal relationship is out of the question for us.”

“So, he’s another Julia?”

“No.” Just a beat, then, “Well, no, not really.” There was a long pause and then Ethan added, “I had a couple epiphanies a few days ago."

"And those were?"

"One, that I like him. He’s smart and he’s got my back.”

“No pun intended?”

Ethan laughed. “Luther.”

Luther laughed as well. “Yeah, okay. No details, please."

There was another pause, this one longer.

"So what was the other one?" Luther finally said. "The other epiphany?"

This time the pause wasn’t just long, it was excruciatingly long and Will turned in a sharp circle. It didn’t matter what Ethan said, what Luther thought—

"It was on the day of the op. We were all ready, going over the last minute details. I was a little worried about Jane—"

"Because of the Brij Nath incident?"

"Yeah, but she seemed calm, so I figured, fine, we can do this."

"And then?"

"And then I realized that I wasn't calm. That for some reason I was getting really freaked out by the idea of Brandt taking on Renault."

"And you realized you were jealous."

Will suddenly wished he had a camera on Ethan and Luther because he wanted to see Ethan's expression. Would it be indifferent, angry?

"I guess you do know me," Ethan murmured.

"I guess I do."

“So, what do you think?”

“You being jealous sort of surprises me, but I don’t think it’s stupid, Ethan. Yeah, I still think a normal relationship doesn’t work for us, but hell, you and Brandt? That’s hardly what I’d call ‘normal.’

“That’s not what you meant, and you know it.”

“Yeah, I didn’t… Do you remember what you told me when we went after Davian, about how Julia made you feel?”

‘Life before all this,’” Ethan quoted softly.

“And what do you think of that now?”

“That it was never going to happen.”

“Bingo.”

“And that I wouldn’t go back even if I could.”

“See, Dorothy? You’re learning after all.”

Ethan laughed or sighed—Will couldn’t tell which. “So…”

“So,” Luther agreed. There was a creak and Will pictured him leaning back in his chair. “At least I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”

Whatever Ethan answered was lost as the earwig screeched and whined. Will cringed and dug it out, then stuffed it in his pocket. Enough of the eavesdropping—he hurried back to the group just as Ethan and Luther strolled out of the lounge.

Ethan glanced at him. “Everything okay?”

He nodded and smoothed his tie, forcing back a stupid grin. “Yeah, it’s good. I’m good.”

 

 

_________________________

Coda

_________________________

 

 

September 2012

Bonn, Germany

 

“… it wasn’t so bad. I didn’t get sick, sick, if you know what I mean.”

“Benji,” Jane sighed. “Trust me on this—women don’t like it when you get even sick singular after you’ve eaten something they cooked for you.”

“And how do you know?” Even through the earwig, Will could hear Benji’s fake leer. “Are you trying to tell us something?”

She laughed and leaned over the ledge to peer down, her shoulder brushing Will’s. “You wish. No, the first night I made dinner for Trevor, he got sick. He said it was probably something he ate before he got to my place, but I felt really bad. It took me months to get up the courage to try again.”

She smiled softly and Will glanced at her before looking back down. It was the first time she’d mentioned Hannaway without frowning or biting off her words.

“This from the girl who leapt from one alpine peak to the other just a few days ago,” Benji said.

Jane grinned and shook her head. “It wasn’t that spectacular. I almost fell on my ass.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t,” Will reminded her, still staring down, tracking Ethan’s progress. The interior of the cold-war munitions tower wasn’t quite as intact as they’d hoped. It was shored up with a network of steel braces but even from this height he could see they were decaying. But nothing to worry about—Ethan had traversed the maze and was almost there. “You left that up to me.”

She bumped his shoulder and was about to say something when the ground shifted, a movement so subtle he thought he'd imagined it. But then it did it again. 

He said, looking at Jane. “What is that?”

She shrugged as it happened again, but this time the tremor was accompanied by a muted roar.

“Yeah,” Ethan said through the mic. “What is that?”

“My best guess,” Benji answered slowly, “is that it’s either an earthquake or one of the bad guys figured better to be safe than sorry and turned the furnace on.”

“You said the factory was defunct, Benji.” Ethan was almost there, just another ten feet or so. “How is this defunct?”

Benji didn’t have time to answer. A series of thumps shook the tower and a cloud of debris and smoke bellowed up from the dark.

Will and Jane threw themselves backwards as the plume hit and rushed out of the access window in a black stream.

It cleared after a moment. Will crawled to the ledge and looked down. “Shit,” he coughed. “Jane. Look.”

Most of the braces were gone and the ones left were bent and twisted like they were made out of aluminum. Ethan was caught between two of them, or at least his rope was. He was hanging upside down like a puppet, coughing and waving the smoke away.

“Brandt?” Jane murmured.

“Get the forty meter rope out of Ethan’s bag.” He grabbed his gear bag and dumped the contents on the ground. Harness, carabiner—

“Guys?” Ethan said.

“Yeah, Ethan, I’m coming,” he said, keeping his voice calm and even as he fastened the harness. “I’ll be there in a second. Benji, you better get down here.”

“Already on my way,” Benji said.

“I’ll use the winch for leverage,” Jane said, just as calm as she began to loop the rope through the harness.

He nodded. They’d tried the loading winch when they’d first arrived on the scene, thinking to use it to lower Ethan down, but it was rusted solid and useless. Or so they’d thought. “Good. Can you get the gloves?”

“On it.”

She was back in a moment and he pulled them on. “Ethan? Is the rope compromised?”

“Yeah. It’s got a quarter of inch tear.”

Jane was tugging her gloves on and she looked up at him. He shook his head. Shit, again. “I’ll be there in a moment.”

“Good.”

He raised his eyebrow to Jane, she tossed the rope around the winch’s drum and nodded.

He climbed over the lip and carefully began his descent.

Compared to Mumbai, it wasn’t too bad. Whatever heat the furnace was belching out was relatively mild and he didn’t have to worry about navigating around the braces. Still… “Ethan? Just letting you know that I’m officially done with ovens.”

“Copy that,” Ethan murmured.

“Almost there.”

And he was and now he was able to see. Ethan’s rope was trapped between two braces, the ragged steel acting as a knife. And the tear wasn’t a quarter of an inch, it was almost all the way through. Ethan was splayed out, trying not to move, but gravity and the shifting tower were doing the job for him.

Will let himself drop again, edging past the steel until he was level with Ethan, about two feet away. “Hey.”

Ethan smiled over at him. “Glad to see you.”

“I bet. Do you have the case?”

Ethan tapped his chest where a slim lump lay.

“Good. You wanna…?” He jerked his head up and Ethan smiled again.

“Gladly.”

It was tricky, just a split second of fear as Ethan reached out and grabbed Will’s harness and waist. The rope held but one of the braces didn’t—it chose that moment to creak and release.

“Wow,” Will murmured, as they both watched it fall into the dark and hit with a muted crash.

“Yeah.”

“Can we go now?”

Ethan laughed. “Yeah, we can go.” He wrapped his legs around Will’s and for a moment they were chest to chest, hip to hip, like they’d been the night before. Only then, Ethan had been on his back, arms out, head tipped back as Will fucked him, doing his best to make it slow and good.

Ethan’s smile softened and then he stretched up, using Will’s legs for leverage. He grabbed the rope and scrambled up and over.

Like a goddamn monkey, Will thought a little enviously as he began to do the same.

It better be worth it, the disk of names and dates that one of the bad guys had tried to destroy by throwing it into what he thought was an empty tower. At least they got the remaining members of the Syndicate, holed up in the factory like a bunch of rats. At least there was that.

So he climbed and when he got to the window’s ledge, Ethan was there, filthy with sweat and soot but smiling, reaching out to pull him up the last foot with a steady, “I’ve got you.”

And yeah, Will decided as he slid over the edge and onto the ground to smile up at Ethan, Jane and Benji—it was worth it. It always was.

 

 

fin.