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no charm equal to tenderness of heart

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Brandt stared down at the little girl clutching his hand. She looked three years old? No, four. ….Maybe. Who was he kidding; he had no experience with kids, not even his brothers’ kids, and they were probably all way older than this one. Now that he thought of it, though he could recall their names and birthdays without a second thought, he had no real idea what they looked like. Sure, he received the family christmas cards every year, but they hung on the walls for a few weeks before being shoved into a box labeled “keepsakes,” never to be seen again.

This kid, though, he was pretty sure he’d never forget. It’s not that she isn’t adorable and tiny and has her blond hair pulled back in pigtails, though none of that hurts. He’s just well aware that terror has a tendency to permanently embed memories into his mind. Those few seconds of freefall after the former Secretary was killed are still fixed in his brain, and though a four year old girl -three?- shouldn’t factor on the same level as a car crash into a filthy Russian river while being shot at, he really had no experience with kids. He was gonna end up killing Hunley’s kid.

“Just fifteen minutes,” Hunley had said. “I just need to chair a single meeting and then we’ll be gone for the day and out of your hair.” He’d winked, then, and that ridiculous, frustrating, fluttery feeling lodged itself in Brandt’s chest. Without thinking, he’d nodded, and Hunley had smiled at him, wide and pleased. When he’d finally been able to tear his eyes away from Hunley’s retreating figure, he’d realized exactly what he’d just agreed to.

Now he was staring down at this child, her thoughtful brown eyes staring right back at him. She seemed to be waiting for something- Oh. Brandt knelt down beside her, still holding her hand, and gave a smile he hoped wasn’t as pathetic as it felt.

“Hello,” he started, then cleared his throat when his voice came out sounding ridiculous and hoarse. Jesus. He could stare down a gun, jump into a massive computer, and come precariously close to death on a regular basis, but he couldn’t handle a little girl. “My name is Will. What’s yours?”

“Emma.” Her fingers had migrated to her mouth while he’d been watching, and she had to speak around them. His inexperience with kids didn’t mean he disliked them, but her soft voice and the trusting grip she had on his fingers had his heart growing three sizes. He smiled at her, which got a smile in return, still with her fingers half obscuring it.

They were in a crowded hallway and she was his responsibility for the next few hours because, no matter what Hunley claimed, there was no way any meeting involving the Secretary of the IMF would last only fifteen minutes. Hell, Brandt couldn’t keep his own staff meetings below the hour mark, and his team knew to be brief.

There was a small purple bag at her feet, and it looked odd next to the pale pink-and-white of her dress. Brandt tucked his arm through the strap and swung it up onto his shoulder, then squeezed her hand. “Do you want to walk, or should I carry you?” Her arms came up around his neck immediately and he took that as a request to carry her. Standing slowly to make sure he kept his files, little Emma, and her backpack all carefully balanced, he spared a moment to make note that she seemed to respond well to the way he was talking to her. Without any other frame of reference, he’d used his normal talking voice, not the sappy baby voice he heard sometimes on television. He was grateful she did understand, as he didn’t think even his skill with languages would be of use if she couldn’t talk at all.

He got a couple of double takes and more than one outright stare as he carried Emma up to his office. He met Jane as he stepped out of the elevator and she actually choked on her coffee. Brandt had to actually make an effort to hide his grin from her, but in another twenty steps he was safely inside his office where he could at least close the door, even if every wall was made of glass. The stack of files he was holding were placed on the desk, well out of the way. The strap of the backpack fell down to his elbow, throwing him slightly off balance and making his heart lurch. He wouldn’t drop her, no way.

Crouching again, he slid his arm from under Emma’s legs and tugged down her little ruffled skirt where it had ridden up, then set her bag on the ground. A moment was spent where they stared at each other again, before he handed her the backpack and she grinned, all of her shyness suddenly forgotten.

“Mommy said I have to be good and be quiet today so I brought my coloring book. Wanna see?” Brandt nodded, but Emma was already digging through her backpack, chatting at him nearly too fast for him to keep up with. She had such a high voice and she said some words strangely, like she was still figuring out how to pronounce things, and it was taking him an unusual amount of effort to decipher. Thankfully, all she seemed to require was his attention, not any kind of coherent or thoughtful response.

A coloring book was soon in his hands and he found himself humming and making encouraging noises while she chattered, explaining which character was in each picture, what movie they were from, why she loved them, and the colors she’d used. Every other sentence included a song of some kind, whether it was a song about colors or songs he assumed were from the movies she’d mentioned.

Brandt had never felt so out of touch with pop culture until this moment, where the only Disney movies he recognized were Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. There was some vague memory about Eddie Murphy being the voice of the little red dragon she pointed to, but otherwise he was lost. His confusion had the added benefit of giving him a wide range of questions on the rare occasion Emma’s words ran dry. All it took was pointing to one of the characters, asking what their story was, and she was off again.

Eventually, his legs started to ache and he sat on the floor, hoping the janitorial staff had been by recently. Emma sat when he did, the heel of her little white sandals colliding with his shin as she maneuvered to sit cross-legged.

----

Emma was a warm weight on his lap as he tucked his suit coat tighter around her body. She’d only just fallen asleep and he was reluctant to wake her. He had no idea if she was supposed to take naps, but she’d pulled out every single item in her backpack and he hadn’t managed to find any instructions. So when her eyes had started to droop and she’d started whining a little, he’d figured a nap was just as necessary for his own sanity as hers.

She’d started out on the couch against the far wall, but Benji had barged into the room and startled her just as she’d settled. There had been some tears, but as soon as he’d pulled her onto his lap, they’d dried up. Benji’s mouth had fallen open, which looked comically ridiculous, but Brandt was honestly just relieved she wasn’t going to be crying all over his shirt. Of course, that was before the drool had started, but by then he’d been rather resigned to the whole thing and had stopped caring so much.

After Benji had left, stammering about sending an email instead, Brandt had finally had the chance to actually do some work. Emma had fallen asleep rather quickly after she’d settled on his lap, even with the awkward way his arms were angled to both keep her in place and type at the same time. He’d had a solid forty minutes of work behind him before she’d started shivering. The mess from her backpack was still strewn all over his floor and there was a distinct lack of anything like a blanket or jacket to be found, so with a little careful maneuvering, Brandt had shed his jacket and tucked it around her. It had only taken moments after that for the shivering to stop, and Brandt had let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

A small cough from the doorway brought his attention away from Emma and the way her soft breaths set a damp sort of heat to his neck. Hunley was there, hands stuffed in his pockets and an odd look on his face. He looked vaguely amused, but also… hopeful?

That one confused Brandt. He’d never harbored any really negative feelings toward Hunley for shutting down the IMF, not like Benji, but he’d never seen any sign from Hunley that he felt anything but casual friendship for Brandt. Of course, he could have been looking at his daughter who did look pretty cute all curled up in Brandt’s jacket, but his eyes flicked down just slightly to look at Emma, then back up for Brandt. And that look- Brandt had spent the last year or so admiring the way Hunley filled out his suits, the way his eyes would close for just a moment over his first sip of coffee. He’d chuckle under his breath when Ethan made jokes over the comms, and he knew Ilsa regularly exchanged novels with him which they discussed through emails. He knew Hunley still felt guilt over the way he’d treated Ethan after the IMF had been disbanded, even despite all rationality telling him he’d made the right call for the information he’d had at the time.

Brandt knew all of this, but that look was still brand new, and he wasn’t sure what to do with it. He clenched his jaw and tried to resist the urge to stand. “She, uh, started shivering and couldn’t fall asleep on the couch,” he explained haltingly, hoping the look wasn’t some kind of horror. Brandt had the sudden shocking thought that maybe he shouldn’t have let her sit on his lap, even despite the glass walls and the cameras and the fact that he’d never-

Hunley took a step forward and hesitated for a split second before crossing the room to smooth down her hair, the only visible part of her, with the jacket obscuring her body and her face pressed into Brandt’s neck. “I had no idea you were so good with children,” Hunley said, his voice soft, but pleased.

A brief, shocked chuckle escaped Brandt before he could stop it, one hand pressing flat against Emma’s back to make sure she hadn’t woken. “I’m not, actually.” He felt a brief flare of embarrassment over not saying this before Hunley had left his daughter in Brandt’s care, but he pushed it away. “I have a few nieces and nephews from my brothers, but the few times I’ve met them, we’ve kept a wide berth. I didn’t approach them, they didn’t approach me.” Leaning back slightly in his chair, Brandt stared up at Hunley, trying to hit a good medium between true embarrassment and humor. “I’ve never taken care of a kid before, let alone my boss’s.”

Hunley’s face contorted with surprise before he laughed. “Emma isn’t my daughter, Brandt. She’s my sister’s youngest. The sitter cancelled and I knew I’d be free except for this meeting, so I volunteered to watch her.” He crossed his arms across his chest and leaned back against Brandt’s desk, clearly amused at the rapid series of emotions Brandt knew were showing on his face.

“But -” He was mostly confused. Maybe. When he’d seen Emma this morning, it had felt like everything had suddenly fallen into place in Brandt’s mind; the reason Hunley had never returned any of his mildly flirtatious comments was because he was married. He’d been trying to let Brandt down gently by not calling attention to it. Now Hunley was telling him Emma wasn’t his daughter, though, so the lack of a ring on his finger probably was because Hunley was single. Brandt looked away, irritated at himself for voicing, even for just a split second, his confusion.

“But if I’m not married, why haven’t I returned your attention?” Hunley sounded far too knowing, and Brandt experienced a brief moment of terror where he wondered if Hunley had bugged his car before dismissing it as completely out of character. Brandt did most of his thinking in his car, out loud, and had spent several hours stuck in traffic working over the Hunley Problem over the past year. Hunley didn’t wait for Brandt to speak, though. “Honestly, it’s because of the setting.”

That really caught Brandt’s attention. Surely he couldn’t mean-

“I can’t ask you out because of my position, but every time you made a pass, we were at work, and even with you making the overtures, I just didn’t feel comfortable accepting.” Hunley’s expression showed no signs of deceit, and his eyes were clear as they held Brandt’s.

Brandt closed his eyes for a second to collect himself before opening them, understanding perfectly. “And when we finally started seeing each other out of work, it was always with coworkers, and I’d basically given up, thinking you weren’t interested.”

Hunley’s phone buzzed softly, and he pulled it out to check the message. The phone was replaced in its pocket and Hunley smiled, the light in his eyes bright. Brandt couldn’t look away. “Apparently we’ve somehow managed to miss each other at every turn.”

There was a moment where Hunley leaned forward and Brandt thought he was about to be kissed, but then Emma was making unhappy, sleepy noises as Hunley began pulling her away, and he was jolted back to the present. The present where he was discussing the possibility of a relationship with Emma’s uncle while she slept soundly on Brandt’s lap.

They spend several minutes trying to unwind Emma from her place on his lap, but every time they managed to get her lifted part way, her hands would clutch Brandt’s ear or around his tie or collar, and they’d have to work to gently separate her fingers from their grip. Eventually, they managed to transfer her to Hunley’s arms and she snuggled against his chest in a way that was adorably reminiscent to the way she’d cuddled against Brandt.

That same sweet feeling he’d had when he first saw her smile encompassed his chest again, and he found himself suddenly more unwilling to part with her than with Hunley. He knew he’d see Alan again tomorrow, but Emma- He had no idea if he’d see her again, and he was shocked to realize that he’d really like to watch her grow, be part of her life.

One of Alan’s hands suddenly cupped Brandt’s biceps and his gaze was drawn up to Alan’s soft blue eyes. “I’ll be watching her until late tonight. Why don’t you come over after work?” His eyes were shining and Brandt could tell that although there was hope and joy there, Alan was also laughing at him just a little. “You can play with Emma some more, and we can continue this talk after she’s gone to bed.”

Brandt nodded. Despite Alan teasing him, there was something very precious about the moment, and he didn’t want to break it. Taking a risk, Brandt leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss to Alan’s lips. It had little pressure, and little passion, but it was a statement of his intentions, clear and present so there would be no more misunderstandings. Alan’s smile widened to a grin, and he squeezed Brandt’s arm, happiness and anticipation in his expression and the promise of so much more in his touch.

After that, Brandt found it simple to gather Emma’s things, slide the straps of the backpack over Alan’s forearm, and walk them down to the garage. He’d see Alan and Emma tonight, where he’d hopefully be able to finally see what Alan hid under his suits, and in the morning Brandt would make breakfast.

Waving goodbye, Brandt realized he’d have to stop at the store on the way home and buy Emma a new coloring book for her assistance. Somehow, Brandt found he wouldn’t mind having a kid in his life if it meant Alan was there, too.