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The Shape We're In

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“Ready?” Ethan asks when Benji opens the door.

Benji doesn’t look particularly ready—his hair is standing up in wisps, like he hasn’t combed it for a while, and he’s wearing a bulky sweater that’s inappropriate for a night on the town, even by Benji’s standards. But Ethan is ready enough for both of them, still wired from a tricky mission to the Ukraine—ready to drink a lot of very expensive liquor, and ready, though he won’t allow himself to complete the thought, to get fucked up enough to tumble into bed with Benji. This has been happening more and more often when they find themselves going out alone—everyone else undercover or busy at work—but neither of them seems ready to do it without the excuse of booze and/or stress relief.

“Yeah,” says Benji. “Just let me…” He trails off and gestures vaguely for Ethan to come in.

In the light of the apartment, Ethan can see that Benji is fish-pale and clammy. The sight stirs a nasty memory, but he shuts it down before it can unfold. “You okay?” he asks, hoping Benji won’t hear how tightly controlled his voice has gotten.

“Sure, just—“ This time, Benji screws up his face as he trails off, and lets loose an enormous sneeze. Then he drops onto his oversized plaid sofa, pulls out a handkerchief and loudly blows his nose. “Okay,” he amends when he finishes, “okay, actually, I feel like crap. There’s this hideous flu going around the office, and I think maybe—well, the perils of life in cubicles, eh? I hate to let you down, but…” He blows his nose again.

Ethan nods, but his mind races. What if it’s not the flu, but poison? What if it’s the delayed effect of some toxin they were exposed to God knows where? He wants to rush Benji to the state-of-the-art lab at headquarters and have an expert run exhaustive tests. He doesn’t say any of that out loud, of course, because he knows it’s ridiculous, but he can feel his face tighten.

Benji misunderstands. “Or, hey, it’s not so bad. I’ll pop a few Tylenol, I’ll be fine. You want to go out? I’m there for you.”

That’s the thing, Benji is always there for him—whether it’s a night out or a suicide mission. Ethan has the uncomfortable feeling he sometimes abuses that. So he forces his facial muscles to relax, grins, and says, “No, don’t be stupid. You don’t feel good, we’ll stay in.”

“We? We’ll stay in?” Benji apparently finds this idea so funny it launches a coughing fit.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Benji swipes at his nose again. His face has gone red, like he’s suppressing more coughing. Or maybe laughter. “It’s just—I mean, when did you ever spend a night in? Like, in your life? What’re we going to do?”

“I dunno. We’ll—watch a game.” Benji’s eyebrows go up. “A movie?”

“Ethan, it’s okay. You go out. I’m going to be terrible company anyway.”

But now it’s as if Benji’s thrown down some kind of gauntlet, and Ethan Hunt has never backed away from a challenge, even if the challenge is hanging out with a sick friend. And if that challenge helps him deal with the admittedly wacko wave of protectiveness he’s currently feeling towards Benji, so much the better. He narrows his eyes and says, “I’m staying, Dunn, deal with it.

“Suit yourself, man.” Benji has his face buried in his handkerchief again, so Ethan can’t tell whether he’s pleased or not by the idea. He thinks Benji’s next words are “just don’t get any ideas about sick guys being easy,” but he can’t be sure.

*

Let no one say that when Ethan Hunt sets his mind to something, he doesn’t do it well. He makes soup and tea in Benji’s minimally stocked kitchen. He finds some Nyquil in his even more minimally stocked bathroom cabinet, and doses him with it. He even takes Benji’s temperature, though this involves a lot of Benji smacking at him ineffectually and cursing. The reading is nothing to worry about, but Ethan still can’t quite relax. He prowls around the apartment, checking the window locks, and involuntarily running security protocols in his head.

“Shit, Ethan,” Benji mumbles from the couch, where he’s staring blearily at soccer highlights. “It’s not a safe house. Sit down already.”

But luckily, Benji is in no shape to complain much about Ethan’s restlessness. His flu seems to descend on him with greater force as the evening wears on. His eyes keep sliding shut, and by nine-thirty he’s a snoring, afghan-wrapped lump on the couch.

Ethan watches him for longer than he'd like to admit. In sleep, Benji looks younger and more vulnerable, his cheeks flushed, his a bit mouth open because he can’t breathe through his nose. Ethan has faced life-or-death situations with this man, spent weeks with him in cramped hotel rooms, and a few intoxicated nights in his bed—but he doesn’t know if any moment has felt as intimate as this.

Still, it can’t be good for Benji to sleep pretzeled up like this. So Ethan half-wakes him and hauls him off to the more comfortable bedroom, where Benji immediately starts snoring again.

After that, Ethan realizes he probably should go back to his own place; whatever good he could do here has been done. It’s early enough that he could even pick up his original plans for going out. But he can’t. Protectiveness—paranoia—bad memories—call it what you will, but it won’t let him leave. Ethan knows when he’s defeated—even, as in this case, by his own psyche—so he pours a double shot of Benji’s good vodka, and settles himself on the sofa. He doesn’t think he’ll be able to sleep, but he does.

*

The light is strange when Ethan wakes, dim and watery. It’s very still, and he can’t figure out what’s woken him, but at a faint rustle, he sits up, and sees Benji a few feet away, seated at a table. Benji is wearing a parka, which strikes Ethan as wrong, and he doesn’t turn in Ethan’s direction, just keeps staring straight ahead. So Ethan gets up, and goes to sit across the table from him.

He knows where he is now. He can almost see Lane’s henchmen out of the corners of his eyes, can almost feel Ilsa beside him. And if he didn’t know, Benji’s face would tell him. Benji’s eyes are wide, the whites showing, and he’s breathing in tiny terrified pants. Ethan knows what that incongruous parka hides. He knows, with a deep, horrible certainty, that if Benji were to speak, it wouldn’t be Benji’s voice that came out of his mouth.

Don’t move, Ethan wants to say. Or perhaps he does say. In any case, he and Benji sit across from each other at that table for what seems like hours, eyes locked, caught in a current of dread. Ethan’s heart pounds; he can feel prickles of sweat breaking out all over his body.

And then Benji does start to move. His nose wrinkles, and his eyes open even farther, panicky, because he can't help what's happening. No, Ethan thinks, or perhaps shouts.

The sneeze, when it comes, is as loud as an explosion. Ethan, without thinking, throws himself not away from the danger, but towards it, throwing himself on Benji, covering him with his body, as if he could somehow shield Benji from fire, shrapnel, or anything else that might come their way.

The chair topples and they land on the floor with a decided thump. The floor, Ethan notes, as his head clears: not the cobblestones he was braced for, but the worn, brown carpet of Benji’s DC apartment. The Thameside café, Lane’s rigged vest, it all dissolves as he remembers where they are.

“Well,” says Benji, half-trapped beneath him. “That was fucked up.” He sounds weak and shaken, but back to his usual sardonic self. “I’m running a kickass fever, but what’s your excuse? I mean, I’ve heard of team spirit, but sharing each others' flashbacks, that’s a bit much.”

There is absolutely nothing funny about this statement, but it sends them both into paroxysms of laughter nevertheless. Benji--and really nobody else but Benji--can have this effect on Ethan. He rolls off Benji, onto his back, and laughs until his ribs hurt. Benji laughs until he starts to cough, and that brings Ethan back to his senses. He helps Benji to sit up and rubs his back. And then, when the fit is over, Benji looks so worn and sad that Ethan, on impulse, leans in and kisses him. Benji's lips are dry and overwarm, but reassuringly alive.

"Don't," Benji murmurs. "You'll get sick, too."

"What germ would dare?"

This makes them both laugh again, though not with the giddiness of before.

"I'm sorry," Ethan says, when they've quieted.

“Sorry for what?”

“I meant to try and be helpful, and so far all I’ve done is tackle you. I'm pretty sure that's not a recommended treatment for the flu. It's just--I—I’m not sure what to do.” It’s oddly hard to say. Ethan’s used to knowing what to do in almost all situations.

Benji laughs a bit more at this, but gently. “You wanna know what to do?”

Ethan nods mutely.

“Well, you can start by helping me back to bed. I’m as wobbly as my aunt Mabel after a two-day bender, and freezing besides.” It’s true, Benji is shivering, even under the parka—the chills are probably what made him put it on in the first place.

“Now,” Benji directs, after Ethan has him settled in bed. “You can find some more of that cough syrup, and make another cup of tea—weak, with a lot of sugar.”

Ethan grins at Benji’s mock imperious demands, but the tasks do make him feel better. “What next?” he asks, after delivering the tea.

“Now you can hang out, or go home, whatever. I think the excitement’s over for the night. Or, if you're really not worried about getting sick...” Benji pats the place on the bed beside him.

Ethan doesn't think twice. He wants to leave less than ever, and the couch suddenly seems too far away. He climbs in. Benji’s fever makes him too hot to hold comfortably, but Ethan does just that, all night long.