IT'S ANYTHING BUT SIMPLE
“Noticed that, thanks.”
Ethan Hunt blinked slowly, opened his eyes for a moment, and then shut them again. The last thing he remembered was sliding into the bed in his hotel room, desperate to grab some sleep after thirteen weeks on the previous leg of the mission, in the brief twenty-four hours allotted him before joining up with his team for the next leg.
The idea of sleep had gotten shot to hell when something very big and very green had smashed through the wall, showering Ethan with scattered bits of mortar and soundproof glass through the meagre shield of the hotel comforter.
His hands had his gun in them before his mind had time to act, and when the thing turned around and roared at him, he’d unloaded half the clip center-mass into the thing’s chest.
It had only roared again, without a single change of inflection, and that’s when everything went black.
And now he was lying in a hospital bed, the weight of a pulse monitor on his fingertip and the steady beep of the machines around him echoing in his ears. His mind was wrapped in the familiar, vaguely iridescent cellophane fog that he recognized as a rather-too-liberal dose of morphine.
Oh, and mustn’t forget the weight of the restraints around his wrists, either. Leather, fleece-lined, standard hospital issue for patients that had a tendency to throw punches in their sleep. Easier to escape than handcuffs, at least.
None of which came remotely close to explaining the fact that there were two William Brandts occupying the uncomfortable plastic visitor’s chairs opposite his bed.
One of them, nose-down in a laptop, eyes flying across the screen, was wearing blue jeans with an honest-to-god crease ironed into them and a cream-colored cashmere sweater. The other one was wearing a men’s dress shirt - not his own, if the way it pulled across his shoulders was any indication - that didn’t quite do the job of hiding the bandages around his chest, and a pair of pants that looked like part of a tactical outfit Ethan had only seen in his own wet dreams.
“How bad is my concussion?” Ethan asked warily, when Brandt-on-the-left continued staring at his laptop, and Brandt-on-the-right continued staring at Ethan, a decidedly un-Brandtlike smirk playing on his lips.
“You’re not concussed,” Brandt-on-the-left answered, eyes still fixed on his laptop, and began typing, his fingers flying over the keyboard.
Ethan rolled his head enough to look at the IV bag hanging above him, but the clear, steadily-dripping liquid told him nothing.
“Just painkillers and standard hydration. Unless you’re prone to hallucinations under the influence of morphine, which isn’t in your file.” That was Brandt-on-the-left again, but the right-hand one was smirking wider than he had been a minute ago.
“He still doesn’t get it,” Brandt-on-the-right commented, and Brandt-on-the-left shook his head slightly, eyes locked on the monitor.
“Give him a minute. They dosed him pretty heavily.”
“Or not heavily enough,” Brandt-on-the-right countered, and by now Ethan was relatively sure that Right was no kind of William Brandt. “He hasn’t started guessing things like shape-shifting alien would-be overlords.”
The typing skittered to a stop for a moment while Left - while Brandt - paused to collect his thoughts. “Is that actually likely?” he asked after a moment, and not-Brandt shook his head cheerfully.
“In your line of work, no. In my line of work, it’s pretty much every third Thursday.”
Ethan stared at the two of them for a moment longer, trying and failing to parse the previous few minutes into any kind of sense.
He’d been working side-by-side with Brandt for three years now, and he’d learned a lot about the man in that time. That he couldn’t lie to save his life, but cleaned the rest of the team out every poker night. He always slept with a gun in his nightstand, because he was afraid of accidental discharge if he kept it under his pillow. And he got terribly twitchy when he was agitated, something that all the training in the world couldn’t break him of.
Ethan knew Brandt’s twitches like the back of his own hand - the flick of his eyes, the nervous flexing of his hands, his habit of taking too-deep, too-loud breaths.
And he was showing absolutely none of those twitches now. He was, in fact, as calm as Ethan had ever seen him, his attention almost fully focused on the computer, leaving the vulnerable back of his neck exposed to the man lounging in the seat next to him. He was safe, uncoerced, and here of his own free will, despite what the restraints on Ethan’s wrists might have suggested.
And if that was the case, he might as well try his luck. “Can I have these off?” he asked, tugging lightly on the restraints with the hand that wasn’t anchored with an IV line as well.
To his surprise, it was the not-Brandt that answered. “Yeah, sure. As long as you don’t go balls-off at Coulson again, because he’s coming back in a few minutes.”
Concussed or not, Ethan had a sneaking suspicion today was going to end in a migraine regardless. “Who’s Coulson?”
“My handler,” not-Brandt answered at the same moment Brandt replied, “His boyfriend.”
When Ethan raised his eyebrows at not-Brandt, the other man merely shrugged. “Depends on what the regulations say this week.”
If the guy had a handler - whether or not he and said handler were bucking regulations - it meant he was associated with an agency, either an agent or an asset. Unfortunately, it didn’t tell him much of anything else.
“Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but exactly who the hell are you, anyway?”
Not-Brandt favored him with a blinding grin. “Specialist Clint Barton, Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division, codename Hawkeye, at your service.”
Clint hadn’t actually gotten around to undoing the restraints - nor Brandt ungluing himself from the computer - by the time the door pushed open a few minutes later, admitting a man who wore his clearly cultivated forgettableness as easily as his clothing.
Which was, at the moment, a dust-smeared, charcoal-gray Dolce suit jacket and trousers, a white cotton undershirt, and battered black combat boots. A navy blue silk tie was barely sticking out of one jacket pocket.
On a hunch, Ethan tilted his head enough to see Barton’s feet, folded at the ankle and tucked under the chair he was sitting in. Sure enough, the specialist’s feet were clad only in black socks.
“Agent Hunt?” the newcomer asked - clearly more for courtesy’s sake than the need for knowledge - and Ethan nodded slowly in response. “I’m Agent Phil Coulson of SHIELD. Are you feeling up to a few questions?”
“I’ve been debriefed in worse shape than this,” Ethan replied, and Coulson mustered a bland and vaguely painful-looking smile in response. Barton snickered.
The debrief was relatively standard for a post-incident rundown. Coulson’s questioning deftly avoided anything to do with Hunt’s reasons for being in the hotel - avoided it so neatly, in fact, that Ethan knew he was taking pains not to bring up Ethan’s agency.
The drugs and Bradnt’s calm gave him the courtesy not to ask about theirs, even if he hadn’t ever heard of it.
When the questioning was done, Coulson was kind enough to run down Ethan’s injuries, using a holographic projection from the tablet he’d been taking notes on so that Ethan could view his X-rays, rendered in perfect digital clarity. Four cracked ribs, no displacement, a dislocated shoulder, since repaired, and predictably massive but thankfully mostly external bruising down his left side. Better than he’d expected, really, considering that big-green-and-ugly had chucked him into a wall.
“How soon can I leave?” Ethan asked, eyes flicking between the still-fastened restraints and the clock on the wall in annoyance. It would be tight, but if he was out of here within the hour, he could still make the flight in time for the mission deadline. He freely admitted that he was in no shape to drive - the painkillers had left things a little swimmy around the edges - but presumably that was why Brandt was here, and he’d certainly be ready by the time they landed in Warsaw.
“When you are judged sufficiently recovered,” Coulson answered, his smile becoming several degrees more bland.
“Might want to leave the restraints fastened,” Brandt muttered from the seats, the rattle of the keyboard almost drowning out his voice.
Barton threw a skeptical glance in the former analyst’s direction. “Would they actually slow him down at all?”
Brandt shrugged a single shoulder, attention never wavering from the screen. “For three and a half seconds, maybe? He’s still pretty drugged.”
“Thank you, Brandt,” Ethan said sourly, and Will shrugged again without looking up.
“It’s not my fault you got slapped around by a pissed-off monster.”
Coulson sighed, and Ethan turned his best interrogation-room stare towards the man. “My turn for questions, Coulson,” he said, dragging up every ounce of his usual steadiness that he could find. “What was that thing? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“That ‘thing,’ “ Coulson answered, the derisive quotation marks almost visible in the air above him, “is the Hulk, a member of a new elite force that SHIELD is attempting to assemble. He’s one of our more... difficult operatives.”
Operative. Jesus. “That thing I fired on was an ally?!”
“Still is,” Barton answered from across the room, “although he doesn’t like you very much at the moment. Mind you, you’re not as pretty as me or Betty, so I guess he wouldn’t anyway.”
Coulson’s smile got blander still, but tightened several degrees around the edges. “Barton, silence is not something that is appreciated only on the radio. Agent Hunt, the day a few forty-calibre bullets can damage the Hulk is the day we have a great deal more to worry about than putative alien overlords.”
Which made no sense to Ethan at all, but alien overlords or no, he was still due in Poland in six hours, and that wasn’t going to happen if he stayed tied to a hospital bed.
He shot a glance at Brandt, hoping to prompt the man into some sort of action, but Will ignored him, typing rapidly and glaring at his screen. Barton, apparently curious, leaned over to look and Brandt simply shifted his shoulder back, allowing the other man to lean close.
Even with their faces beside each other, it was difficult to pick out differences in their features. Brandt worried more - the tension-lines in his forehead were more distinct - but Barton’s eyes were webbed with tiny creases, likely from long hours of intense focus. Sharpshooter, Ethan guessed, looking at the callused, broad-fingered hands.
There was so much similarity between them, though. Barton might have been a shade leaner, a little more bulk across his shoulders - try as Brandt might have, a gym regimen was no substitute for active field work - but the way they moved was shockingly similar, the controlled uncoiling of precisely trained muscle.
They even carried themselves in a manner that was so close to identical. He could see that they had both battled a lack of self-confidence; the way Brandt’s shoulders always knitted together, how Barton ducked his head when he wasn’t thinking. But they’d both fought to overcome it; Brandt by becoming quietly competent, Barton by becoming loudly competent.
Very loudly, if Coulson’s jab about radio silence was anything to go off.
“Are they brothers?” Ethan asked Coulson, keeping his voice low, turning the Agent’s attention to the two men in the seats. The second Coulson’s eyes were turned, Ethan carefully twisted his hand in the restraints, dislocating his thumb as silently as possible. If he had to get himself out of here, he would, and he was doing it now.
“We’re not related,” Brandt replied absently, to the apparent amusement of Barton, who shook his head as well.
“Haven’t you heard that everybody’s got a double out there somewhere?” Barton’s grin was easier than Will’s, but a little sharper-edged. “But no. Coulson actually had your boy here arrested when he arrived onsite, thinking he was here in some plot to replace yours truly. We’ve run like six sets of DNA testing on both of us, and we’re really not related. Just.... twinny.”
“Agent Hunt, you do realize I could have unbuckled those for you, had you asked,” Coulson commented mildly, his face still turned to towards the two men on the far side of the room, and Ethan froze, one hand half-out of the restraints, his thumb still tucked limply against his palm.
Brandt sighed and shook his head and Ethan carefully sat up, pressing his thumb back into place against his thigh. Nobody objected when he reached for the other restraint, so he unbuckled it quickly and sat up again, rubbing his wrists. “I need to leave,” he said, slowly undoing the tape holding the IV needle in place, never once taking his eyes off the rest of the room.
Barton was so close to Brandt that he could easily kill the other man before Ethan would have time to move, and he could see the outline of Coulson’s weapon, snug in the shoulder holster under his jacket. Ethan’s own weapon was -
“In the box, on the table next to your bed.”
His train of thought splintered, Ethan blinked at Coulson as the other man turned around to face him.
“Your weapon,” Coulson elaborated calmly, nodding towards the rolling table beside Ethan’s bed. There was a metal lockbox sitting on it, key stuck helpfully in the lock. Ethan drew it over a little warily. No part of the box seemed to be wired, and a careful lift of the lid revealed it to contain only his gun and a spare magazine, both nestled comfortably in the foam.
Coulson waited patiently, eyes steady as Ethan checked the gun over. Only three rounds left, two in the clip and one in the chamber. Safety on, no tampering that he could see, just a few new scratches from the fight, nothing unexpected.
The spare clip was full, and he thumbed each of the bullets out, inspecting them one by one for any inconsistencies before reloading the clip with patient precision and sliding it home.
“You know, I do still have my own sidearm,” Brandt said conversationally, and Ethan flicked a glance at him, carefully laying his own weapon down beside him on the bed.
Brandt raised his head enough to meet Ethan’s gaze from under his eyelashes, and the calm assurance Ethan saw there soothed him more than the weapon at his side did.
Loathe to show it, though, he merely raised an eyebrow at Brandt, who sighed and handed the laptop over to Barton, who settled to eyeing it with the same scrutiny Brandt had been.
Brandt, for his part, leaned forward enough to reach behind himself, pulling a .45 out of the back of his jeans.
“Slightly less obvious than a front rig,” he explained when Ethan only raised his other eyebrow. Holstering the gun again, he took the computer back from Barton and went back to work. “And if you want to get out because it’s you hating hospitals, that’s fine, but if you’re worried about making Warsaw, relax. Benji and Jane are there now, and SHIELD was kind enough to lend us an agent in return for accidentally damaging you.”
The drugs in his system were Ethan’s only excuse for the six and a half seconds of openmouthed disbelief he greeted that statement with.
“Are they even cleared to know about us?!” he managed, when he’d finally resumed control over his tongue.
A world-weary sigh and two near-identical snorts of laughter answered him. Coulson was rubbing his forehead, looking as if he had a migraine identical to Ethan’s brewing.
“This is why I hate the words ‘inter-departmental cooperation,” the handler sighed. “Yes, Agent Hunt, SHIELD has been cleared with IMF. And our Agent Romanoff is managing quite nicely with your team, the mission is going well.”
“Really well,” Brandt added, his fingers barely more than a blur over the keyboard. “Romanoff’s good.”
“Wait. You’ve got mission feed on that thing?!” Ethan demanded, ready to scramble from the bed and snatch the laptop for himself. “Let me see.”
“No,” Brandt answered levelly, and Coulson managed an expression of mild distress as the steady beep of Ethan’s pulse accelerated.
“Please don’t exert yourself, Agent Hunt. If your blood pressure spikes, the nurses will bar all visitors from your room.”
What his blood pressure - abnormally low at the best of times - had to do with anything, Ethan couldn’t begin to guess, but he settled back against his pillows with a sense of vaguely resigned frustration, glaring at Coulson, who ignored him in favor of checking his buzzing phone.
“What now?” Barton asked, his eyes as firmly fixed on the laptop’s screen as Brandt’s, and Coulson heaved a sigh that Ethan had heard far too often from his superiors.
“One of our people will be in shortly to arrange for your discharge and transportation to another allocated IMF safehouse,” Coulson told Ethan, putting his phone away and fishing out a business card instead, keeping his movements just slow enough that Ethan’s hands didn’t once twitch toward his gun. “If you need anything from us, you can reach me at this number.”
Ethan had the number memorized before his fingers even touched the cardstock, but he accepted the card anyway, tucking it carefully under his gun.
“Barton,” Coulson snapped, turning, and the man patted Brandt’s shoulder lightly as he leapt to his feet, slipping a little on the linoleum floor in his socks.
“You,” Coulson said, jabbing a finger at Barton, “are coming with me to explain to Fury why I had to sign a requisition order for your twelfth tactical vest in three months.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault the thing could spit acid!” Barton protested, gesturing to the bandages on his chest, not-quite hidden by Coulson’s borrowed shirt.
“Given the amount of experience you’ve had with acid-spitting entities recently, Barton, you should be able to recognize them by now. And if you don’t manage to go at least the next sixty days without being doused in a corrosive substance, I’m going to personally order R&D to shift funds from the development of your new recurve bow to designing you an acid-proof bubble.”
“I’ll agree to stop showering in acid if you agree to stop walking in it to get to me,” Barton countered with a grin that could only be described as shit-eating, leering down at what were clearly his boots on Coulson’s feet.
One of which promptly and deliberately stepped on Barton’s toes.
Smirking, Coulson caught Barton’s hand in his, pulling the swearing agent’s arm across his shoulders, and the pair of them slipped from the room without so much as a goodbye, leaning contentedly on each other.
Ethan stared at the door for a long moment after it had shut, listening to the steady rattle of Brandt’s typing counterpointing the beep of his heart rate.
“That was different,” he managed, finally, and Brandt glanced up enough to grin at him, thoughts working behind his eyes.
After a moment, thoughts apparently decided, Brandt stood up and carried his laptop over to Ethan’s bed, nodding for the senior agent to move over. When Ethan complied, shifting his weapon and Coulson’s card to the table and pressing himself over to the side of the bed, Brandt slid in next to him, a loud exhale escaping him as he settled in against Ethan’s uninjured side.
He arranged the laptop across their thighs, his own resting comfortably against Ethan’s through the thin barrier of hospital sheets, and together they watched through a hacked security feed as Jane and a delicate-looking redhead that could only be Agent Romanoff made their way efficiently through a heavily-guarded vault, knowing that Benji’s voice was guiding the two women through safely.
“They’re doing fine,” Brandt said, his voice soft, and Ethan nodded, letting his head drop down to rest on the solid curve of Will’s shoulder.
“I know,” he mumbled back, and didn’t fight when the morphine started to pull him under again.