It's been two hours since Brandt's cover was blown, ninety minutes since they lost contact with him, the cartel not destroying his earwig until after they let the team listen in on the "interrogation." Benji had had to stop once to throw up, but he'd kept triangulating the signal they were getting from the comms right up to the last second. As Ethan hits the final stretch of road before he's going to have to go straight up the side of the mountain, Benji's got Brandt's last known position pinpointed within six feet, he says. Jane's initiated contact and formally requested assistance from Delta Force.
All Ethan has to do is get to him.
* * *
The last twenty feet are the kicker. The castle itself is carved out of the living rock of the Carpathians, a relic of the days of serf-driven labor when it didn't matter how long it might take or how many men died in the construction so long as the end result was impregnable. Thankfully, modern climbing gear trumps medieval megalomania, but the final ascent is over stone that spent close to a millennium under the water that had powered the fortress's mill. It's worn almost as smooth as glass and nothing Benji's got in his magic bag will work on rock. Ethan does it the old-fashioned way, pulling himself up inch by inch, the clock in his head ticking louder and louder, a second-by-second gogogo punctuated by endless replays of the final, hideous noise torn from Brandt's throat just before the comms had gone down. Even if Delta Force is wrong and they're not just going in to recover a body, every second it takes Ethan to get in is another second Brandt has to hold out for and another second less likely that he can.
Ethan loses his grip once, skidding and tumbling six feet before his pinions hold and the rope snaps taut to break his fall. The adrenaline flooding through his system means he barely feels the wrench or the bruises from where he slams into the stone, only settles himself and starts again. They've picked this approach because it puts Ethan into the castle right above where Benji says Brandt was. None of them are thinking about how long the cartel has had to move him since they destroyed the signal Benji worked with. Ethan will cross that bridge if--not when--he comes to it. He hauls himself up the last foot, slipping over the wall and into the small courtyard with a grunt, and Benji is already cross-referencing his position with the rough blueprints they have of the castle. They're more sketches than anything, but it's what they have and it's only because William Brandt is a digital packrat who never met a file he couldn't archive that they even have that much.
"Ten degrees south-southwest," Benji murmurs. "Three meters and there should be a window." Ethan's moving before Benji's finished speaking. "Dorothy says she and Scarecrow are on the yellow brick road, five-by-five and waiting on your call."
The plan is for the Nighthawks to hold off just over the border, not breaking Romanian airspace--and potentially starting a small war--until they know Ethan has Brandt and is ready for extraction. Ethan hopes the eleven minutes it will take the helicopters to reach the castle isn't eleven minutes too long, but it's the best they can do. He moves through the castle on Benji's say-so, turning corners and taking stairs at a dead run, the safety off on his Glock and an extra throwing knife tucked in along his calf. He'd watched the cartel pulling out of this location from across the valley, but that doesn't mean they left the place empty. It probably means that Brandt is long gone with them, but Ethan hadn't seen anyone that could have been Brandt, or anything that could have been used to carry him. Plus, the rough translations they'd gotten off the recordings of the interrogation (rough because Brandt is their languages guy and it's not helping Ethan at all to think that way) indicated that they didn't think Brandt is worth anything, so Ethan is betting everything that they left him here to die (not left him dead, Ethan thinks. Whatever that last thing had been, Brandt was still breathing, they'd all heard the painful rasp of breath before the earwig had been smashed.)
"Look sharp, you're nearly on top of it," Benji says, and Ethan slows down and starts opening doors along the long, stone-flagged passageway as quietly as he can. "Closer, closer..."
"X marks the spot," Ethan answers as he opens the last door before the corner and there's a figure in a chair. He can hear Benji's breath rush in and hold until Ethan can get close enough to see that it really is Will under the blood and grime and bruises. It takes another second to find the pulse at the base of his throat and then one more for Ethan to make his voice work long enough to say, "Confirmed. Confirmed. You got him, Benji. Dead solid perfect."
Go, Jane's saying, her voice strong and sure for all that Ethan can barely hear it over the surge of relief and adrenaline of seeing Will's eyes blink open, go. Right on top of Jane comes the pilot's confirmation--in that particular Special Forces tone that suggests invading sovereign nations with nothing more than a squad of men is routine--Tin Man, this is Scarecrow. We are inbound, ETA eleven minutes. Repeat, eleven minutes, and Ethan starts trying to figure out how he's going to get Will up to the courtyard in that time.
"Ethan." Will's closed his eyes again, as though he doesn't actually believe what he's seeing and can't expend the energy on a hallucination. Just for a second, Ethan is glad, because it gives him a little bit where he doesn't have to keep it together as he looks over everything they did to Will. By the time Will blinks again, Ethan's got his game-face on because if they're going to make it, Will is going to need every ounce of his considerable mental toughness. He absolutely does not need to deal with Ethan being anything but focused on getting him out. "Seriously?" Will coughs. "Ethan?"
"Code name Tin Man," Ethan answers, summoning up a smirk from some well of determination he's tapped only once or twice in his life. Will laughs weakly, with a pained gasp at the end that registers as broken ribs to Ethan, but all he says is, "We were a little pressed for time; you can point and mock at our lame code names later."
"Just tell me I'm not Toto," Will says, playing along, but closing his eyes again.
"All right, I won't tell you that," Ethan deadpans, and Will snorts, ever so faintly. If nothing else, he's coherent. Ethan has no idea how, but he's not going to start questioning small miracles now. "Listen, Jane's on the way with the cavalry, but--"
"Yeah, this is a right fucking mess," Will says, which is about the understatement of the year.
"That's one way of putting it," Ethan says, taking a deep breath because they have to get moving. "The good news is that they missed your femoral artery."
"Yeah," Will breathes. "Figured that--haven't bled out yet. I can move my foot, a little--hurts like a sonofabitch, but I don't think the bone's broken either."
"Good," Ethan answers. "The bad news is that it's probably going to hurt worse coming out than it did going in."
"Yeah. Figured that, too." Will opens his eyes again, looking straight at Ethan, nothing but grim determination. "As much as I really don't want to do this, I'd rather not check out in his particular hell-hole, so let's get the party started, okay?"
"Okay." Ethan makes himself look critically, assess what he's going to have to do and how he can get it done, and, jesusfuckingchrist, he really wishes he'd gotten to shoot a couple of these animals in the face, because anybody who nails people to chairs with railroad spikes doesn't deserve to go skipping off into the night. He clears his mind and focuses on the important thing, which is not how sweet a little payback in kind would be, but how he's going to get his agent the hell out of this mess. "I can--"
"Do it," Will says through gritted teeth and Ethan takes him at his word. It takes three strong pulls to work the spike out of the chair and his thigh; before Ethan finishes the first one, Will is spitting curses in Russian and German and what Ethan thinks is a dialect of Bulgarian. By the end of the third one, when the fucking thing finally slides free, the only reason Ethan's sure Will's still conscious is because he's rigid with pain.
Ethan offers up a silent apology before he gets some pressure on the wound. He doesn't like the blood he's seeing but at least they're a tiny bit closer to getting out of the whole nightmare.
"Six minutes to exfil, Tin Man."
"Copy," Ethan says, trying to decide how much more Will can take. "I don't know if we're going to make it up to the courtyard--my ops guy can guide you down--"
"Screw that," Will says, his eyes still closed but his mouth stubborn. "I can get that far." Ethan hesitates and Will starts to stand on his own, all his weight on his good leg. "Not checking out here, remember?" Ethan grabs him before he goes face-first onto the floor.
"Cancel that," Ethan radios. "We're moving." He gets a shoulder under Will's arm and starts for the door. "Anybody ever tell you you're a stubborn idiot?"
"Am I supposed to take that as an insult?" Will gasps. "Coming from you and all?"
The doorway is narrow; it's impossible to get through it without jostling Will's leg and Ethan can feel him starting to gray out, more weight bearing down on Ethan.
"Brandt," Ethan says. "Will, hey, c'mon; stay with me. Talk to me."
"Yeah," Will pants, rallying. "Yeah, okay, talk. What about?"
"I don't know," Ethan answers, retracing the path back up to the courtyard as quickly as possible. "Tell me about where you grew up."
"Oh, fuck, no," Will grits out. "I'd rather have that fucking stake shoved back in my leg than talk about my old man."
"Gotcha," Ethan says, as they hit the bottom of the first staircase. "Future, then. Tell me what you're going to do after this."
"I'm going to goddamn well see if I can max out a Vicodin 'script--what do you think I'm going to do after this?"
"Seriously? You're going to fuck with the guy who's hauling your bleeding ass up castle steps?" Ethan's actually pretty happy to have Will bitching at him; the least he can do is keep up his part of this relationship they've forged. "Smooth, Brandt."
Given that his breath is shallowing with every step, Will manages a fairly impressive huff, but a couple of halting steps later, he murmurs, "Kilimanjaro." Ethan makes an encouraging noise as he maneuvers them up the last few, steeper stairs, taking more and more of Will's weight as they move. Will adds, "Which I'm assuming you've already summitted."
"No," Ethan says. There's one more door between them and the courtyard but Will's fading quickly. "I've never quite made it there."
"Got it all planned, just have to make the calls," Will whispers as they make it out into the open flagstone terrace. "I kind of figured on maybe a month to really get into shape, but that's--that's probably screwed for now."
"Might take more than a month," Ethan agrees. He braces Will against the wall and reaches for the IR marker clipped to his belt. He probably should drop it further out in the courtyard, but he kicks it out as far as he can and decides to deal with it later if the Nighthawks can't see it. Right now, he needs to look at Will's leg more. He eases Will off his feet, letting him slide down the wall. "Got anything else in mind?"
"There's a full solar eclipse later this year," Will answers, tracking Ethan more slowly than Ethan likes. "Landfall in Australia. Northern part."
"I have done that, and it's definitely worth the hassle," Ethan says, wrapping the last of his bandages around where Will's bled through everything else. "Brace yourself," he murmurs as he pulls them tight.
"Motherfuck," Will groans, and Ethan wants to punch something, because he can already see the blood seeping through the new bandages. He strips off his overshirt and makes a pad, leaning down with as much pressure as he can. "Fuck, fuck, fuck; jesus, that fucking hurts."
"Sorry," Ethan tells Will. "Sorry, sorry." Will doesn't answer, but Ethan knows he hasn't lost consciousness, and he is still breathing, so there's that at least.
"Tin Man, we are on our final approach, ETA two minutes. My boys want to know whether we can drop you a harness or--"
"Negative," Ethan answers. "No way we'll be able to do that; right now my fist is the only thing keeping my guy from bleeding out." There's probably a better way to have said that, one that won't be freaking Benji and Jane out, but Ethan will just have to apologize to them later.
"Copy that," the pilot says. "Hold tight."
"Yeah," Ethan sighs, but he can hear them coming, the steady beat of the helicopter blades growing louder every second. So far, the direct pressure seems to be working; Will hasn't bled through the extra cloth, but Ethan knows it's got to be agony to have that much weight on the wound. Will hasn't said anything, though, just set his jaw and taken it. Ethan wants to be able to tell him to let go and check out, but every little bit of help he can give them while he's conscious is that much less time it's going to take to get him out.
The Nighthawks come storming up the valley, and it's been a long time since Ethan's seen anything as good as three attack helicopters flying in formation, coming for him. The already deafening sound bounces off the sheer rock faces until there's nothing but the noise and the man under Ethan's hands. Two fly cover while the last hovers over the courtyard, dropping three operators on fast ropes almost before Ethan can blink. They move with practiced ease, two of them laying open a net harness and getting Will and Ethan secured in it while the third checks Will over quickly, a small Maglite in his mouth throwing sharp, clear light on everything Ethan was too slow to keep from happening to Will. He replaces Ethan's makeshift bandages with an H-type, one of the compression bandages combat medics use for everything up to amputations, which at least means Ethan can stop putting all his weight directly on the wound; and then has the other operators hold off on starting the lift long enough for him to get an IV in Will's arm.
"Sir," the medic shouts to Ethan as the others wave up to the Nighthawk and the rope goes taut. "I need you to hold this for me." He thrusts an IV bag of plasma in Ethan's hands. "Up," he gestures. "Above heart level." Ethan manages a thumbs up and then he and Will are in the air, the net they're cocooned in swinging enough that Ethan has to breathe consciously and fight down the nausea. About a third of the way up, they pass the ladders dropping down to the men still on the ground below; Ethan keeps his eyes on them as a point of reference and knows from how they tighten that the operators are on the way up before he and Will hit the halfway point. Clearly, this team is taking the operation seriously--they're going to be in and out in less than 30 minutes--and at the very least, it's a sign that the IMF isn't being shunned after the disavowment was reversed.
Ethan expects Will to lose consciousness as they're pulled into the Nighthawk. There's no easy way to make that transfer happen, but as they hit the deck, Will's eyes blink open to meet his. "Made it," Ethan yells, which isn't exactly true--they still have three men coming up the ladders, and it's another eleven minutes until they clear Romanian airspace, let alone how much farther they need to go for an actual hospital--but they're a damn sight better than they'd been ten minutes earlier. Will nods infinitesimally.
Ethan's almost glad for the bag of plasma he's holding; he thinks it's the only thing keeping the rest of the team from separating him from Will, and if he needs to be close for reasons other than Will being his agent, his teammate, he will deal with that later. The Delta Force guys are practically hanging out of the helicopter to give them space to get Will down and his leg elevated as best they can. Somebody claps a headset over Ethan's ears and the sudden, relative quiet is such a relief he keys on the mike and gets them to do the same for Will.
"Ethan," Will says, so faintly Ethan would think he'd imagined it if he hadn't been watching Will like a hawk. "Cold."
"Doc?" Ethan looks up at the guy wearing the insignia of the medical corps next to his Ranger's tab, to see if he heard Will, too, and what the fuck they can do about it. With his helmet and goggles off, he looks like he's about fourteen, but his hands are moving quick and competent over Will, checking his pulse and the wound like he deals with this every day. He probably does.
"It's the blood loss, a little," the kid says quietly. "Shock." Ethan probably shouldn't call him that no matter how smooth his face is, not with eyes as old as the ones he's assessing Will with. He digs around in his pack and shakes out a space blanket. "Plus, this shit," he taps the bag of plasma, "is chilled and it's not like we can turn up the heat in here."
They're all very valid points, and probably not really anything they can overcome, but Ethan can't just sit around and do nothing. He shifts until he can wrap himself around Will, putting his body between Will and the deck of the copter. Nobody so much as blinks--clearly, they all operate under the whatever it takes motto, too. The corpsman even nods approvingly as he drops the space blanket over the two of them.
"Your body heat can't hurt," he says, and then relays that they've cleared Romanian airspace and are gunning for a private hospital in Chernivtsi.
"You hear that, Brandt?" Ethan says, more for his own sake than for actually expecting a response, but Will murmurs back, so Ethan keeps going. "Stay with me, yeah? We've got Kilimanjaro and the eclipse; what else do you have on tap?"
"'S all BS," Will says. "Not important, you know? Just sounds good."
"Yeah? What's important, then?" Ethan says it on auto-pilot, half his attention on where they are, how much longer it's going to be. He says it just to keep Will focused on something other than this whole clusterfuck, but even as the words leave his mouth he knows this isn't Will just playing along with Ethan's games.
Will doesn't answer for a few long seconds, but Ethan has his hand wrapped around Will's wrist so he can feel his pulse, too fast and too shallow, but still there. Finally, Will says, "People. I had that, somebody, but I was messed up. After Croatia." His voice fades out, and all Ethan can think is how he can't fuck this up. Will is private, self-contained--he's committed to the team and Ethan knows they can trust him with their lives, but he's always stood apart, even after the full truths of Croatia and the protection detail had been communicated. This is as close as he's ever let Ethan get and Ethan is fully aware that it's mostly due to the shock and stress of the last few hours. He should be ashamed of the fierce emotion that surges through him, the possessive satisfaction he's taking in being the one who's hearing this, if only because of how much Will's been forced to take to get to this point, but he can't, not just yet. The best thing he can do, Ethan tells himself, is to be here, fully present for whatever Will needs to say. "He stuck around for a while," Will says finally, "but it turns out I'm a pretty mean drunk, just like the old man. Can't blame him for getting the hell out."
This time when Will falls silent, Ethan knows he's finally out. Ethan doesn't move, though. There's too much ricocheting through his head. It's not a secret that Will carried a lot of guilt for Croatia, but it's an entirely different thing to hear explicitly how it had messed Will up, how it cost him more than just the field. And that doesn't even begin to touch the growing certainty that Ethan isn't thinking of Will as just another agent, not even one as important as Jane or Benji.
The IMF has scrambled a squad to the hospital; when the Nighthawks touch down on the roof, they're met by a full medical team, and they're the only reason Ethan finally lets go of Will, pulling himself back out of the way to let them get to Will. He stays sitting there on the floor of the helicopter for an extra few seconds, everything--the climb, Will, everything--hitting him suddenly.
"You okay, sir?"
"Yeah," Ethan says after a second. "Yeah, I'm good. Thanks, Doc," he tells the kid. He offers a more formal version to the strike team commander, but quickly, because they're clearly ready to be gone. He climbs down, too tired to care how awkwardly he lands, and is on his way to follow the medical team when Jane emerges from the second Nighthawk. She ducks her head under the rotors and runs to meet Ethan, waiting until the helicopters lift back off and the noise fades before saying anything.
"Is he--?" She stops when she catches sight of the blood on Ethan's hands, his clothes.
"Alive." Ethan wishes he could offer more reassurance, but even if Jane couldn't see right through him, she deserves the truth. She stays still for the count of three, her eyes down, but when she looks up again, her face is calm, resolute. She nods once, and they turn to go start the wait for news.