The black phone rings a few weeks later, and it’s Ethan’s voice on the other end. Brandt listens to the whole pitch, all the details of the mission, and it’s only when he hears himself say, “Yes,” that he realizes he is not free of the paralyzing guilt he thought he’d left behind in Seattle. The mission is not just politically sensitive, or personally dangerous - it also sounds so crazy that Brandt would suspect a practical joke if Ethan didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would just murder whoever he was irritated with instead. There’s an Iranian prince’s body double, one half of the recipe for a chemical weapon, a train hand-off in Kazakhstan, and a Dutch contact of Ethan's whom Brandt is expected to meet with in fourteen hours. In the Netherlands. Oh, and a guaranteed international incident should any of them get caught.
But it doesn’t matter. Brandt said yes, and he knows that if Ethan asks him for anything else, he’ll say yes to that, too. He’ll keep saying yes until he’s given Ethan enough to make up for what it feels like he took. Intellectually he knows that he didn’t take anything from Ethan, because Ethan’s wife is still alive. But Brandt can’t make himself feel it.
So he packs a bag, and he’s at Dulles airport in just under thirty minutes.
“POI at my two,” Benji murmurs into his own shoulder.
“Got him,” says Jane, and she folds up her Telegraaf as if she’s finished reading and begins to leisurely walk after the man Benji pointed out.
“Anybody know what we’re going to do if we’ve got the wrong poem?” Brandt asks conversationally. He and Benji are seated at a cafe, talking past each other into their comms. Brandt feels like he’s glancing around too much. It still unnerves him, all the play-acting stuff. The pretending to sit calmly at a cafe. He would much rather be the guy back at headquarters, telling everybody where to go and who to shoot.
“Well, that would be your department, wouldn’t it?” Benji says. “The poetry.” Ethan’s contact, a university professor, gave Brandt an intercepted communique that listed passwords for a meeting here in Amsterdam. The passwords were coded in ancient Persian verse, each one corresponding to a time of day or a train line, so now Brandt is sitting at a cafe with a stack of flowery love poetry waiting for Jane to feed him the right lines. Brandt gives Benji a look that says, Ha ha.
“We don’t have the wrong poem,” Ethan says. He’s sitting at a table two over and three down from Benji and Brandt, holding his iPhone to his ear but talking to Brandt. “Alto is the best Islamist scholar in Europe. What we really have to worry about is whether or not we’re going to be in time to intercept the exchange.”
Brandt looks past Benji’s ear, where he can see Ethan in his peripheral vision, a blur of black leather and loose brown hair. Ethan still hasn’t cut his hair since Russian prison. It was shorter in Croatia, where Julia teased him about growing it out again and he said seriously that it could get in his eyes during important spy business, and she said, “But it’s so much cuter that way,” and he laughed and lifted her up onto the kitchen table. Brandt isn’t naive enough to look away from the monitor when stuff like that happens, but he also didn’t expect to remember it the way he does, the way she threw her head back, the huskiness of their moans. Ethan’s powerful shoulders working. The slow way he peeled her underwear down her legs.
Sometimes when Brandt looks at Ethan, he feels something hot and private and it’s hard to remember that it has nothing to do with him.
“Stand by,” comes in Jane’s voice. “Meeting underway.”
Benji switches on the mobile translator. Brandt rests his elbow on the table, obscuring Ethan from his view, and bends his head down to the file. They wait.
Brandt is shut up in a locker in the engine car, holding a data-signal augmenter and watching Ethan fake his way through the chemical recipe exchange with the Iranian arms dealers, when all at once he feels the train tilt around him. They weren’t supposed to take the turn. Benji and Jane were supposed to have taken over the track controls - what happened?
Ethan senses it too; Brandt can see his shoulders tense through the thin slats in the locker door.
Benji’s voice comes in, flat with stress. “They had someone at the junction manually overriding us. You’re headed for Zarechnoye, ETA six minutes.”
“Fuck,” Brandt mouths soundlessly. Zarechnoye being the uranium mine Benji said was crawling with enemy guys.
The arms dealers are talking to Ethan about good faith and the importance of rituals in building trust.
“Guys, the signal booster won’t work once you hit the mine,” Benji continues urgently. “Repeat, you must turn on the signal booster in the next six minutes.”
With a very visible air of Fuck this, Ethan slams his elbow into the face of one arms dealer and kicks the other square in the stomach while the first guy is still fumbling for his gun. Brandt’s hand is on the locker door before he catches himself, but he can’t go anywhere without risking the delicate calibration of the signal booster. He makes himself stay put and watch as Ethan snaps the first man’s neck and lets him drop to the ground. Ethan points to the body and demands in Farsi, “Where is the goddamn recipe?”
The second guy is on his knees from the blow to his stomach. He wheezes, “It’s wired to a bomb - you will never open -”
Brandt gets that sinking-stomach feeling he sometimes gets when it takes him more than fifteen minutes to reconcile source data. “Ethan, you do not have time to defuse a bomb in the next four minutes -”
“No choice,” Ethan says, and he drags the arms dealer into the next car.
“What is he doing?“ Jane demands.
“Ethan,” Brandt tries again, punching the wall when he gets no reply. “Damn it. He’s extracting the recipe manually. There’s nothing I can do,” and as he mentally runs through his options, anything he can think of involves moving the signal booster.
Benji says something in reply that Brandt misses, because there is a muffled explosion farther down the train.
Brandt turns in the direction of the noise, as if he could see anything, here in the dark of the locker, but there isn’t much doubt about what could have happened. A huge weight bears down on Brandt’s chest, and for a long, awful moment he can’t breathe at all.
Then Ethan says, “Brandt, turn it on. You’re good to go.”
Brandt lets out a sound that could be mistaken for a laugh. He presses the sequence of buttons purely through muscle memory and the signal booster ignites with blue light.
“Oh thank God,” Benji says as Brandt puts a fist to his forehead and tries to pretend he’s not shaking. “Thirty seconds and we’re golden.”
It’s been barely thirty-one when they hear the deep hollow roar of the train entering the mine. The blue light goes dead and so do the comms, with a fizzle of protest. Brandt drops the signal booster onto the floor and leans his head back against the wall.
“Thank God,” he repeats quietly.
They’re all in a dive bar, nursing beers and the wounds one acquires when fighting one’s way out of a uranium mine. The two halves of the recipe are back safely with their respective governments, the prince’s body double has been arrested for black market dealings, and the IMF has successfully extracted them all to safe ground in Istanbul. It’s about two in the morning, and they’re all getting to the level of exhaustion where life-threatening danger seems funny.
Benji has the worst of the giggles. “And then,” he says, ineffectually wiping at his eyes, “Jane just threw the one bloke out of the car! Jane, can you go just one mission without throwing someone out of something?”
“Nah, I think I’m gonna make it my signature,” she says, leaning back in her chair and crossing her arms. “You piss me off, you get pushed out of whatever’s nearby.” But she can’t keep up the deadpan act and by the end of the sentence she’s laughing as hard as Benji is.
Ethan is watching them banter, a shit-eating grin on his face. He’s toying with his beer bottle, one arm slung over the back of the chair, a livid bruise purpling on his cheek. The only time Brandt has ever seen Ethan this bone-deep relaxed was after the other time Ethan threw himself on top of a bomb. The connection is a little unsettling.
Casually, Ethan’s eyes flick up to meet Brandt’s, which is when Brandt realizes he’s been staring. Ethan holds his gaze. Brandt’s throat spasms and he blinks too quickly, but he doesn’t look away. Eventually, Ethan does, his grin sharpening into something almost unkind.
“Time for bed,” Ethan says, as if they’re sleepy children and he’s the patriarch. “We’ve got an early flight home tomorrow.” He stands up and surveys his team. “You did good work today,” he says at last. “I’m glad you guys are on my side.”
It’s enough of a joke that it sets them all off, and it’s several minutes of helpless laughter before any of them can stand up, finish their beers, clap Ethan on the shoulder, and head for the door.
“Not you,” Ethan says when Brandt tries to do the same. “You stay.”
The guilt hits Brandt like a punch in the gut. Brandt tries to pinpoint the source - Ethan taking on two bad guys while Brandt stayed shut up in a locker - Julia, safe in the house with two of his guys - the body they found in the woods - Ethan’s naked back moving in the surveillance monitor and the shortness of breath Brandt knew he hadn’t earned -
“Whoa there,” Ethan says. He takes a couple terrifying steps towards Brandt and raps on his head with two knuckles. “Stop that. You’re making my brain hurt.”
Brandt almost smiles. “Overthinking’s my job,” he says quietly.
Ethan, at this close distance, seems very tired. There are little lines under his eyes and across his forehead, some turning his mouth down subtly and a couple right between his eyes, the ghosts of a frown. At this distance he actually looks his age.
“Do you know,” Ethan says conversationally, “that that’s the first time you’ve looked me in the eye all week?”
“Wh-” says Brandt.
“At the table,” Ethan clarifies, and he smiles for a moment, that same knife-edged smile. “For three hours now, we’ve been sitting across from each other at a four-foot table, and you won’t look at me. Hell, we just ran an entire mission together and you didn’t fucking look at me. No, you didn’t. Not really,” he adds when Brandt wants to protest, because sometimes it seems like Brandt doesn’t do anything but look at Ethan, but maybe Ethan has a point. Observation is a kind of avoidance. “So?” Ethan asks, smile completely gone. He takes a deliberate step forward into Brandt’s personal space, so close that Brandt can smell him, sweat and dirt and the metal tang of the train. Without meaning to, Brandt does a quick scan for the exits, the swinging door behind the bar that leads to the kitchen, the curtain to the bathroom, and the thick wooden front door behind him.
“What the fuck is going on with you, Brandt?” Ethan speaks past Brandt’s ear, voice deceptively soft. “Did we not settle all our shit in Seattle? Because this,” and here Ethan circles his finger in the air around his own temple, indicating an endless machine, “is not your job anymore. And I look at you and I see the wheels turning, and I see this blank fucking wall, and I think there must be something else.”
Then the silence is so heavy that Brandt thinks he must have missed some kind of question. “Something else, what?” He clears his throat. “What do you want me to say here, Ethan?”
“I want you to tell me what you’re not telling me, Brandt.” Ethan’s voice, still quiet, takes on the bite of an order, and Brandt swallows and knows that he will answer.
There’s nobody left in the bar but the old barkeeper, stacking glasses on the back counter. What can he say? That he can’t undo that moment in Croatia when he chose to leave the house instead of stay and watch Julia? That no matter how alive she is, Brandt still fucked up and that won’t ever not be true? That Brandt saw all their private moments on the cameras and then she fucking died and he still had dreams about them anyway? That being this close to Ethan feels like a transgression?
Ethan takes Brandt’s shirt in one hand, and then the other. He pulls in so close that Brandt can feel his words on his ear. “For God’s sake, Brandt. Stop. Thinking.”
Ethan pulls back just a little, enough to look Brandt in the eyes. Brandt’s heart thumps and he knows Ethan can feel it through his shirt, but Ethan just continues staring at Brandt, brows knit together, lips apart in concentration. He’s waiting for an answer. He’s expectant.
And Brandt -
Brandt leans forward, and he kisses Ethan. Whether or not that was the answer Ethan’s looking for, Brandt brings his hands up to Ethan’s face, and he presses himself against Ethan, and he kisses him.
And Ethan kisses him back, with so little hesitation that Brandt realizes this is what the whole conversation has been about. Ethan figured him out; Brandt has been struggling with himself for nothing. The mingled shame and relief of that realization is tamped down by the urgency of Ethan’s mouth on his, and shortly, by Ethan’s tongue in his mouth. Ethan kisses like he does everything, with ferocious single-mindedness, and if Brandt had time to think before, he doesn’t now, as surreal information pours in: the strength in Ethan’s shoulders, the expansion of his ribs as he heaves for breath, the feel of his too-long hair in Brandt’s hands. It’s so incredible to be touching Ethan, and Brandt is so exhausted, that this barely feels like it’s happening at all.
With the abandon of a dream, Brandt pushes Ethan backwards into one of the tables and grinds into him, a slow roll of his hips. Ethan makes a faintly surprised sound in the back of his throat, and answers the gesture by sliding his hands under Brandt’s ass and hitching him forward, forcing him to grind harder. Brandt groans into Ethan’s mouth. He fists a hand in Ethan’s hair and pulls, and it is around this time that the barkeeper starts shouting at them in Turkish to get out.
They separate, Ethan already grinning, although he raises an apologetic hand to the barkeeper and says, “Özürlerimizi.” He makes a show of putting extra lira on the table while Brandt just watches him, breathing hard, fingers itching to touch again.
Ethan must see the look on Brandt’s face because his grin disappears and he says, “My room. Now.”
Brandt throws out a hand - after you - and there will be time for the fear, the guilt, all the mixed feelings he knows he has about this, but right now by God he just wants to get Ethan Hunt into bed.
The chilly night air is a shock to the system, and as they walk and breathe oxygen Brandt’s head clears enough to say, “So you knew.”
Ethan shakes his head, to Brandt’s surprise. “No,” Ethan says, and he quirks a smile at Brandt, shoving cold hands into his pockets. “I just have a God-given ability to get with the program.”
And thank God it’s funny, and thank God they’re both exhausted, because Brandt laughs and so does Ethan and somehow the laughing undoes some of the knots inside of Brandt and deepens the desire too.
Brandt hasn’t asked the question yet - is this okay - and now, his stomach aching as they laugh and walk and freeze in the early morning darkness, he doesn’t really need to ask it. It might be okay and it might not be. He won’t overthink it.