Things were weird after Kashmir. Everyone dealt with the fallout differently. Luther retired—again. Ilsa disappeared to handle the MI-6 side of things. Brandt was helping to run things while everyone waited for a new Secretary to be appointed. Benji expected to be put on desk duty for a while, considering. But after he’d passed his medical check, they’d put him right back in the field.
He hadn’t minded. Keeping busy kept the nightmares away. He didn’t want to stop and think about what had almost happened, about what he’d almost lost. But in his quieter moments he thought about Ethan. He was the one Benji was really worried about. Healing from his injuries was taking a while. He texted Benji constantly, complaining about PT (This therapist is a masochist. I suspect he’s former KGB.), quarterbacking from the sidelines while Benji was working (You’re going in through the electrical conduit, really?), and once, out of nowhere: I’m at a record store and they have a copy of Turandot. Made me think of you.
It was strange to be out in the field while Ethan was stuck at the office or in physical therapy. Benji was working with a solid team, but they didn’t feel like home. Benji was beginning to realize that the particular sensation of rightness, of belonging, stemmed from his proximity to one team member in particular. Ethan, of course. It had always been him, right from the start. Ethan was home and Benji was homesick.
The texts came at all hours, sometimes at times that made sense, other times they’d be stacked up like a tower of presents to open on Christmas morning when Benji woke up, bleary-eyed in another random safe house.
Are you up?
What are you doing?
Maybe you’re asleep.
I’ll let you sleep.
Do you like mangoes?
Some people are allergic and I didn’t know if you were.
I love them.
Not allergic. Obviously.
I guess you could like them and still be allergic and just not able to eat them.
Anyway. You’re probably asleep.
Sleep well, Benji.
It took Benji a while, but he realized that maybe Ethan wasn’t just insanely bored. That maybe he…missed…Benji?
Brandt won’t tell me where you’ve been sent, but if it’s Kandahar, make sure you avoid The Jackal’s territory. And if you get into a jam, call my friend Amir. You know, the guy from that time with the thing?
Ethan was like a mind reader, and when Benji managed to save his entire team from getting executed thanks to Ethan’s tip, he shakily typed out a thank you text as soon as the danger was past.
I’m due back tomorrow night. Can I take you for a drink at Nick’s as a thanks for the head’s up?
The response came so fast, Benji wondered if Ethan could really be half a world away.
Nick’s embodied everything Benji liked about American bars—it was dark, the floor was sticky, it had a jukebox that played everything from Elvis to Journey, and a Miller High Life set you back $3. It was also half a mile from headquarters, yet the brass never set foot in it.
Ethan was waiting at the bar, blending in with dark jeans, dark leather bomber jacket, nursing a beer. In the dim light reflecting off the mirror behind the bar, he looked about twenty years younger than Benji knew he was. Benji paused a beat, pushing his glasses up his nose. He’d taken to wearing them all the time now, and he wondered if he looked older than he was, tired and worn out from the long trip to Afghanistan and back. His beard had grown out a little, but he’d taken the time to clean up after debriefing and before meeting Ethan. He wore slacks and a button down and a tweedy sort of jacket that could have come from his father’s closet. But he thought he looked all right.
Not that it mattered what he looked like. He was just getting together with Ethan as a thank you. They were friends, for god’s sake. He’d missed his friend. He owed him a drink. What was he standing here for?
He took a step forward and at that moment Ethan caught his reflection in the mirror. He swiveled around and smiled at Benji and for a moment, Benji thought—okay. If I die tomorrow at least Ethan Hunt will have smiled at me like I’m someone who matters to him.
After that, Benji got over himself. He ordered a drink and sat down, talking shop with his friend, who just happened to be the legendary Ethan Hunt.
“Amir says hello, by the way,” Benji said, when they were on their second beer.
“Hello, Amir,” Ethan said. “I’m glad that worked out.”
“Jesus. Me too. It was close.”
“I wish I could have been there,” Ethan said. “Are you sure you’re okay for all this field work? They’ve been sending you out a lot.”
“Yeah, sure.” Benji didn’t say that he wished Ethan was out there with him. That was up to Ethan. And he was still healing. In more ways than one, probably. “I like to keep busy,” he said instead, rather lamely.
“I know what you mean,” Ethan said. Benji nodded tightly. The two of them weren’t like normal people. They knew things, saw things. The stuff that regular people had in their ordinary lives wasn’t enough for them. It wasn’t enough to keep the nightmares at bay, anyway. It was strange that the antidote to intense stress was getting oneself into even more stressful situations. They’d been rewired at some point, him and Ethan. And they couldn’t really go back. Benji didn’t really want to.
“So, when they clear you, you’ll be going back out again?” Benji asked.
“We’ll see,” Ethan said, rather bitterly. Benji felt a stab of fear—Ethan was recovering from his injuries, wasn’t he? He looked as healthy as ever, but there had been internal bleeding, torn muscles, broken ribs.
“Is everything—I mean, are you going to be okay?”
“The doctors all say I’m healing faster than they could have expected. I’m two weeks ahead of schedule in my PT progress.” There was something rueful in Ethan’s voice.
“That doesn’t surprise me. You are basically Wolverine without the claws,” Benji said. Ethan lifted his eyebrows. “Never mind.” Of course Ethan wouldn’t get a comic book reference. “But there’s something you aren’t telling me.”
“They think I’m not mentally ready. They’re still pissed I lost the plutonium in the first place, that I saved Luther instead. They think Walker got into my head. And they really don’t like it that Julia got involved. They think I have too much baggage. Too many weak points.”
“That’s ridiculous. Yes, you care about your team. But that’s because you aren’t a sociopath. That’s a good thing, Ethan.”
“Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m too compromised. I mean, thinking about going out into the field again—it’s what I do. It’s who I am. And with you—I mean, we have fun, right? We have each other’s backs. But there’s also something…terrifying about it. I’ve lost a lot of friends, Benji. Good people I couldn’t save. Maybe it’s time to stop.”
Benji was shocked. He couldn’t imagine a world where Ethan wasn’t out there fighting the bad guys. On the other hand, Ethan deserved to have a moment’s rest, a moment’s peace.
“I don’t know, Ethan. You’ve always taken on the world. You’re strong enough to do it again. And again. But you’ve been a little different, since Lane and Walker. And Julia.“ He’d wondered if Ethan’s changes had more to do with coming face to face with his ex-wife and her husband than nearly dying alone on the edge of a cliff.
“I don’t know. Less guarded.” Benji hoped he wasn’t revealing too much of himself in his answer.
Ethan took a sip. “That was a rough time—for all of us.” He looked up and caught Benji’s gaze. It took all of Benji’s self-control not to reach up and touch the imaginary rope around his neck. “But Julia said some things to me—she made me realize that it was okay to let go of a few things I’d been holding on to too tightly. And it turns out when you let go of things, you’re able to reach out and hold something new.”
“Someone new.” Ethan stared at him, calmly.
“Oh.” Benji heard a rush of blood in his ears as his heart sped up.
“Benji—” Benji leaned forward in anticipation, then watched in slow motion as Ethan’s gaze flicked behind him and his expression changed from calm intensity to a loose, welcoming smile in half a second. “Ilsa.”
“Ilsa?” Benji whipped his head around to see her, lithe and unfussily beautiful in black jeans and a leather coat, her hair piled on top of her head. She was smiling. Benji had never seen her look so…relaxed.
“Here you are,” she murmured. “I wasn’t sure if Will was putting me on when he said this is where I’d find you.” Then she did the most astonishing thing. She gave Benji a firm kiss on the cheek, walked past him, pressed herself to Ethan’s side, and said, “What are we drinking?”
An hour later the three of them had moved to a corner booth and Ilsa was telling them a hilarious story about one of her first missions for MI-6 that involved impersonating an Australian socialite. At least, Benji thought it must have been hilarious by the way Ethan was laughing, free and easy. Benji was paying more attention to Ethan than the story; he was a genuinely terrible person at how much he hated to see Ethan looking so happy.
“And I am shit at accents, but somehow we pulled it off and got all the gold bullion out before the place exploded,” Ilsa crowed.
“Something tells me that’s not true,” Ethan said, chuckling merrily.
“What, you think we’d just let all that gold explode?”
“No, that you’re shit at accents. You aren’t shit at anything.”
“Well, that’s true,” she agreed easily, and they all broke out laughing again, even Benji. They might have been a smidge drunk, but Benji had a feeling he needed to be drunker to deal with the picture unfolding in front of him.
Ethan and Ilsa made a handsome couple. They were both beautiful, confident, had perfect eyesight. He was scruffy, terrified more than half the time, and he definitely needed to visit his optometrist because his glasses had been sliding down his nose all night and—
“Hmm?” It seemed Ethan had called him more than once.
“Yeah, um, I’m tired, I guess.”
“Of course,” Ethan suddenly looked concerned. “Jet lag. Let’s take off.”
Benji’s gaze flicked from Ethan to Ilsa, who was watching them with an inscrutable smile on her face. “I hate to break up a party—you guys stay. Next round’s on me.” He rose and Ethan did, too, in a fluid motion that made Benji’s heart ache.
“’Course.” Benji found his wallet and dropped some bills on the table. Hopefully it was American money. He was actually exhausted, now that he thought of it. It wasn’t hard to feign a yawn and wave awkwardly to Ilsa, who was still watching as if Benji and Ethan were denizens of a strange culture she was trying to understand the nuances of.
Ethan hovered as if he wasn’t sure whether to sit back down or not, which was absurd, since Ilsa was settled in, fresh drinks on the table. It wasn’t even midnight.
“Well, goodnight.” Benji made a sort of jokey salute which he instantly regretted as he turned on his heel and left Nick’s at a pace that could have been described as “speed walk,” feeling Ethan’s eyes on his back the entire way.
He supposed that could have gone worse. He could have actually made the pass he’d been contemplating making right before Ilsa walked in. Her timing had saved him from that, at least. What would Ethan want with Benji when he had someone like Ilsa at his side?
She’d revealed that she was in town indefinitely, taking some meetings at the IMF. Of course they would try to recruit her, Benji thought. She was perfect. And she was currently a free agent. Since Ethan was also at something of loose ends at the moment, it made perfect sense that they would finally act on all the flirting they’d engaged in over the last couple of years. That must have been what Ethan was trying to tell him before she arrived. That he’d decided to move on from Julia. That he was ready to have a relationship. With Ilsa.
Benji swallowed and cursed himself a fool for thinking that Ethan’s eyes had ever held interest, that his smiles held affection, that his concern for Benji’s well being was anything more than friendly.
He pushed his glasses up his nose a final time and told himself it didn’t matter. If Ethan was happy, Benji would be happy for him.
The next day Benji technically had off, but he didn’t want to spend it moping around his apartment while Ethan didn’t text. Why would he text Benji when he had Ilsa to occupy his time?
So he went to the office, but he didn’t want to cross paths with Ethan or Ilsa, so he decided to pay a visit to the basement where the techs worked on the latest and greatest in mask technology, truth serums, exploding gum, etc. He had some friends down there and he sometimes ran tests for them.
“What’s up, Dunn?” Maggie, who’d started at IMF around the same time as he had, gave him a warm smile.
“Just wanting to see if you have anything new for me to take a look at.”
“We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve. Not that you field agents ever use the gear properly.” Maggie complained, but without bite. “Let me show you.” They walked over to a table covered in different models of watches.
“Ahh, Agent Dunn graces us with his presence.” This was from Trevor, a slim man in a checked shirt and stylish suspenders, who was bent over one watch holding a soldering iron.
Benji grimaced. He’d taken his share of ribbing from the tech and data people over his defection to field ops, especially after he’d been demoted to desk duty during the whole absorption by the CIA debacle a couple of years ago. He’d no longer belonged there, after the things he’d done and seen, and everyone knew it. Once you went into the field, it was hard to come out. Field work set you apart. Benji sometimes missed the easy camaraderie with his former colleagues, but he still felt more himself when he was out in field. Especially when he was with Ethan.
Thinking about Ethan made him realize why he was there—to get some distance from the man. He walked over to Trevor and he and Maggie explained they were fitting the watches with tracking devices, but not just any tracking device. This watch could give off a chemical stamp that once in contact with a target’s skin, could be tracked as accurately as a digital tracking device.
“And it’s completely undetectable and impossible to wash off. All you have to do is touch the watch to the person’s skin, say, brush against them in a crowd, or shake hands with them and get the metal to touch their skin, the chemicals are released and embedded, and we can start tracking,” Trevor said.
“Sounds useful,” Benji said. “How long does it last?”
“48 hours. We think,” Trevor said. “Still need to do more testing in different conditions. Water, cold, etc.”
Benji asked the tech a few more questions about range and accuracy, and continuously pushed his glasses up his nose as he nodded along. Trevor was getting more and more technical is his explanations, and getting more and more animated. It was kind of amazing how into the project he was—but Benji guessed that’s why people joined IMF—they were passionate, driven, and focused.
Trevor stopped and looked at him, and Benji suddenly realized he’d drifted closer and closer to the technician in order to see his prototype and they were bare inches apart. Benji shuffled back quickly, about to apologize for invading Trevor’s personal space, but the man just smiled.
“Hey, can I—“ Trevor started to say before reaching up and gently sliding Benji’s glasses off his face. Benji stood stock still, not sure what was happening. “Let me help you with these.” Trevor took one of his little watchmaking tools, adjusted the frames and then slid them carefully back on.
“Better?” Trevor asked lightly.
Benji wiggled his ears, and nodded his head up and down. His glasses stayed put. “Much, thanks.” And before he could think better of it and remember all the reasons he shouldn’t, including the fact that he was in love with someone else, he said, “Fancy a coffee?”
The IMF commissary was a study in monochromatic silver fixtures, which Benji supposed was meant to be sleek and futuristic, but the results were antiseptic and cold.
Luckily, Trevor was warming up the space with his explanation of advancements in voice replication software, and between the coffee (not bad) and the blueberry muffin (quite good), Benji found himself relaxing. Trevor was good company, intelligent and quick, but not so deep into the minutia of the job that he seemed like a robot. Over the course of twenty minutes, Benji found out Trevor was five years younger than him, was allergic to corn, had worked for the IMF for three years after working on VR at Google for the first part of his career, and enjoyed bluegrass music.
“There’s a bluegrass festival this weekend—maybe you’d want to come for a bit of it.“ Trevor stopped, took a sip of coffee, waited for a reply.
Benji realized he was being asked out. Which shouldn’t have surprised him, considering he’d initiated this whole coffee thing. But now that it was happening, he didn’t know what to do. Trevor was attractive, and interesting, and possibly interested in Benji. And he knew what Benji did for a living, which made certain things easier.
But he wasn’t Ethan.
In fact, there Ethan was, in the flesh, strolling toward their table with a paper cup in his hand and a nonchalant smile on his face.
“Uh—“ Benji had no idea what to say, and then Ethan was there, his gaze flicking between Benji and Trevor.
“Benji, didn’t expect to see you in the office today. Hi, I’m Ethan,” he said, extending a hand for Trevor to shake.
“I know. I mean, hi. Trevor Fitzpatrick.” Trevor seemed slightly star struck at meeting the one and only Ethan Hunt.
Benji didn’t blame him. Ethan oozed charisma, and he looked good today, wearing a variation on his outfit from the night before—jeans and a black button-down, the sleeves rolled up over his muscular forearms.
Ethan turned to Benji. “So, working on your day off?”
“You know. Keeping busy,” Benji said, in an unintended echo of their conversation last night.
“Apparently,” Ethan said, rather cryptically.
There was a beat. “Ah—would you like to join us?” Trevor asked.
“Nah, I better get back to work. I’m showing Ilsa the ropes.”
“Right,” Benji said. “Fantastic.” He hoped he sounded enthusiastic rather than sarcastic.
“Nice meeting you,” Trevor said. Ethan nodded in acknowledgement. The agent looked like he might say something else, but he just smiled tightly.
He turned to go and Benji didn’t wait until he was six paces away before saying, a shade louder than necessary, “I’d love to join you for that festival.” He noticed Ethan’s step hitch slightly out of the corner of his eye and didn’t know what to make of it. He only knew that if Ethan had Ilsa, then he was going to do his best to move on. The sooner the better.
“What the fuck do you wear to a bluegrass festival?” Benji muttered to himself as he combed through the contents of his closet. He wished he could text Ethan to get his advice, but things felt weird between them. After exchanging contact info with Trevor, he’d left headquarters and gone for a walk, hoping to clear his head. He’d hoped Ethan would text him like he normally did, but maybe he was too busy with Ilsa. Benji had gone home and slept poorly. When he woke on Saturday morning, Trevor had already texted him a time and place to meet later. And then Benji had been too concerned with pre-date jitters to think much about the fact that there had been radio silence from Ethan.
He flipped through his collection of shirts. There was one he’d been wearing that time he and Ethan broke into the Iranian consulate in Rome. He couldn’t wear the one he wore the night they went undercover at an underground boxing match in Kiev—it still had a rip in the elbow and a stain that was probably blood on the hem. But that had been a fun night, ending with a foot chase that had them winded and laughing all the way back to the safe house.
It was sobering to realize that Ethan had slowly, over their years of working together, become his best friend. And Benji was in love with him. If he wanted to keep Ethan as a friend, he had to get over him. And since they were friends who texted about anything and everything apparently, it wouldn’t be weird for him to text him about this.
What do you wear to a bluegrass festival?
The reply took a while and was less than helpful.
A corncob pipe
What’s wrong, Benji?
Of course Ethan would be able to tell something was off in a one-word text. But he didn’t know where to start. It hadn’t escaped his notice that he was trying to get over Ethan by dating a different guy from work. “What are you doing, Dunn? This is a terrible idea.”
In the end he just texted back Nothing, mate. Just trying to keep busy. He hoped the message would reassure Ethan that he was fine and that he didn’t need to worry about him.
Benji pulled on a blue t-shirt and jeans and a white and blue checked button down. He grabbed a brimmed hat at the last minute, since it was sunny and he tended to burn under a light bulb. He headed for the Metro determined to enjoy himself with Trevor. He didn’t need Ethan to have a good time. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from checking his phone for new messages every few minutes. Each time the screen was blank he felt another stab of irrational disappointment.
Trevor greeted him with a casual hug, which signaled to Benji that this was indeed a date, but not a super high pressure one, considering it was three in the afternoon and they were surrounded by five thousand bluegrass fans all milling about. Benji had to curb his impulse to scan the crowd for hostiles. They were in Alexandria, Virginia, for god’s sake. He allowed Trevor to buy him a beer and steer him toward one of the smaller stages where a group that Trevor liked was about to perform.
“I like your hat,” Trevor said, touching the brim of it briefly.
Benji smiled up at him. Since Trevor was wearing a similar one, he supposed he’d made a good choice. Trevor’s outfit was similar to Benji’s, too, only his button-down was brown and green, bringing out the green of his eyes. Trevor was rather fit, he had to admit, a few inches taller than Benji, slim but muscled, in the way of a cross-country runner.
If he could manage to forget about Ethan, maybe he’d actually have fun. He wasn’t completely hopeless in the romance department. Yes, it had been a while since he’d seen anyone longer than one or two dates, but that was because his job was insane. He loved it, though. Dating civilians hadn’t seemed worth the trouble since he became a field agent.
And here was Trevor, not quite a field agent, but not a civilian, either. Maybe here was a happy medium. He owed it to himself, and to his friendship with Ethan, to give this a real shot.
The band started playing, and though Benji was no expert, the sound was surprisingly fresh and contemporary. The music swelled around them, banjoes and fiddles and guitar both light and soulful. Trevor kept glancing over at him, as if to judge his enjoyment of the music. Benji nodded and smiled. And he couldn’t help but notice that as the set progressed, Trevor had inched closer to him, until their arms were brushing every so often. Benji was trying to decide if he liked it or not. He knew that objectively he should be feeling something—butterflies, or the buzz of anticipation. But while he was having a good time, he just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to take this date to the next level.
Damn. Was he going to have to let Trevor down? Was this going to make things awkward at the office? He really hadn’t thought this through. He suddenly needed air, even though they were outside.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and then hustled toward the beer tent before Trevor could say anything.
He found a hay bale to sit down on, and realized his heart was beating too fast and his breathing was shallow. Was he having a panic attack? He suddenly, desperately, longed for Ethan. Ethan, his friend, the man he could always count on in any situation--even a panic attack at a bluegrass festival. But he was endangering that friendship with his stupid, unreturned feelings.
Benji stood. This was what he was going to do. He was going to go back to Trevor, and pretend he was a normal bloke on a normal first date. He was going to give it a real shot. And he was going to get over Ethan if it was the last thing he did.
When he found Trevor again, the band was playing their encore. “Everything okay?” Trevor asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” Benji said. “Great band. Thanks for asking me to come. I wasn’t sure it would be my scene, but this is fun.”
“Glad you like it, Benji,” Trevor said. “Want to get something to eat? I heard they have amazing Italian sausages—you know all loaded up with peppers and onions?”
“Sounds great. But let me just do this, then, before we get onion breath—” and Benji tilted his head up to give Trevor a quick but firm kiss on the mouth, just to see if he could do it. It felt…nice, and it did his ego much good when Trevor smiled and kissed him back.
“Or we could skip the food,” Trevor said lightly, but in such a way that Benji knew he’d be completely fine with doing just that and going back to one of their places.
Benji wasn’t prepared to shag him on the first date, however, so he hummed, and kissed him a final time. “Let’s see, okay?”
“Okay,” Trevor said, smiling. “I’m really—oh. Look, there’s Ethan Hunt.”
“What?” Benji thought for a moment that Trevor was telling some weird joke, but he followed his gaze to where Ethan was standing barely ten feet away. He was standing as still as a statue, watching them, his face hard as granite. What in holy hell was Ethan doing here?
He took in Ethan’s clothes—dark jeans, light blue denim shirt rolled up to the elbows. For a split second he wanted to believe that Ethan had come here for him. And then he saw a woman approaching from behind Ethan, and his ridiculous hopes plummeted off a cliff. Ilsa joined Ethan, lovely in a white sundress that showed off her elegant shoulders. She slipped her hand into Ethan’s, and smiled dazzlingly at Benji and Trevor. “Hello, seems we’ve missed the show.”
“I wish we had,” Ethan said quietly. What the fuck did that mean?
“What are you two doing here?” Benji said.
“Ethan said he wanted to introduce me to some authentic American music,” Ilsa said.
“I guess you got me thinking,” Ethan said to Benji stiffly.
“Oh. Okay. Well, um, you met Trevor yesterday. Trevor, this is Ilsa Faust. I gather you’re going to be seeing her around the office from time to time, if we’re lucky,” Benji said. He knew that Ilsa would be an invaluable asset to the IMF. And since he was getting over Ethan in record time, it wouldn’t even feel like a stab to the heart every time he saw her around the office. It wouldn’t hurt every time she smiled at Ethan and Ethan smiled back. It wouldn’t feel like his heart was being stomped on every time she and Ethan were paired on a mission and Benji had to stay behind. He shook his head to stop his line of thought.
“We were going to get some food. Why don’t you join us?” Trevor said. He put his hand on the small of Benji’s back, positioning them together. “We” and “us” rolled off his tongue easily. Benji supposed he should feel happy that someone wanted to be in a “we” with him, but he just felt incredibly awkward, as if he was performing a role in front of Ethan.
But between Ilsa’s friendly enthusiasm for new experiences, and Trevor’s desire to look good in front of high-ranking agents, they smoothed the way with small talk as they foursome headed toward the food carts and trucks that offered fair-style from tacos to funnel cake. Benji stood on Trevor’s far side, so he didn’t have to talk to Ethan, who was on the other side of Ilsa. They weren’t holding hands anymore, Benji noted. Maybe they didn’t want people from the office to know they were dating.
He belatedly remembered that even if it felt strange and awkward, this is what he’d wanted. He wanted to be able to keep Ethan as a friend. So what if it was a far cry from what his heart’s true desire? Ethan was happy with Ilsa, and Benji would be happy for him. He would be Ethan’s friend. That was something he knew how to do, anyway.
They each ordered loaded sausages, even though Benji didn’t feel very hungry. While they waited, Trevor went over the festival schedule with Ilsa, giving her pointers on who to try to see. Ethan stood next to Benji, his arms crossed over his middle.
“So, Trevor seems cool,” Ethan said.
“Yeah—um. He’s working on some interesting stuff in the lab. You should come down and check it out.”
There was a silence.
“It’ll be nice to have Ilsa around more,” Benji said. He almost meant it.
“If she stays. I’ve had a hard time getting her to stick around in the past,” Ethan said, a bit ruefully.
“She’d be crazy not to stay,” Benji said. He meant it. If he had Ethan, he’d never let him go.
“We’ll see. Things are quiet right now, so I’m trying to keep her entertained. I don’t want her to think working with the IMF is boring and disappear again.”
“Right.” Benji forced himself not to think of the ways Ethan was keeping her “entertained.”
“But I did get some good news, I guess,” Ethan said.
“I’ve been cleared for field work, pending my next physical.”
“That’s great. I need you out there, Ethan. I mean, the team does. The IMF.” Benji felt himself blush.
“I found out yesterday. I wanted to tell you, but…it sort of felt like you were avoiding me.”
“What? Me avoid you?” Benji’s blush intensified. “Of course not, mate.” He didn’t look at Ethan, instead noting that Ilsa and Trevor had collected everyone’s food from the window and were bringing it over.
“Okay,” Ethan said, but he didn’t sound convinced.
Some spy I am, Benji thought. I can’t even convince my friend I’m not avoiding him.
“Ethan, Trevor here has given me the inside intel and apparently the headliners are just okay, but there’s an up-and-coming group on the second stage in thirty minutes that he says we can’t miss.”
“Great,” Ethan said. “Can’t wait.”
“So, uh, you guys are sticking around?” Benji asked.
“Oh shit, Ethan, darling, we’re being idiots. These two don’t need a chaperone, of course. We’ll stay out of sight, let you have some privacy,” Ilsa said with a raised eyebrow.
Benji felt his blush coming back. Jesus. Could this situation get worse? He hadn’t expected the object of his affection and the object of his affection’s perfect girlfriend to crash it in the first place. And now they were making way too big a deal out of everything.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Benji said, a bit sharply. “We’re all here. We’re all grownups. Let’s just…okay?”
There was a moment of silence and then Ilsa laughed. “Sorry, of course. I shouldn’t tease. Now, Ethan tells me you can name any tune by the Beatles in three notes, Benji. Can you get this one?” She whistled precisely three notes.
“’Let It Be.’ Don’t waste my time,” Benji joked. Trevor laughed and the four of them spent the next half hour trying—and failing—to stump Benji with his funny little party trick.
It felt like midnight by the time they four of them made their goodbyes, but it was probably only eight o’ clock, just dark. Benji was exhausted from having to navigate Trevor’s flirty possessiveness, Ethan’s hot and cold mood, and Ilsa’s insouciant energy. Even still, he had had fun. It was always fun to be around Ethan, even if confusing. Ilsa was hilarious. Trevor was quick witted and thoughtful. It had been fairly nice to have someone tuned into his needs, making sure he was comfortable, paying him attention. Actually, Ethan often did that, too. But it meant something different when it was someone who clearly found him attractive and wanted to be with him in multiple senses of the word.
They hovered by the exit. Benji just wanted to go home and sleep. He turned to Trevor. “Thanks for the invite. Really. It was grand. My dreams will have a banjo score tonight.”
“And mine will have the Beatles. But only three notes of every song.” Trevor smiled. He glanced at the other two and lowered his voice. “This evening didn’t turn out exactly how I’d hoped, but maybe it’s better that it did.”
“What do you mean?”
“I really like you, Benji, but it’s kind of obvious that even if you like me, too, you don’t like me as much as you like someone else. And, honestly, I can’t blame you. I just hope you don’t get hurt.”
Benji was stunned. How obvious was he? He swallowed, resisted the urge to look behind him where Ethan and Ilsa were standing, out of hearing distance, he hoped. He thought about denying it, but that wouldn’t have been fair to Trevor. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I was trying—I am trying to get over him.”
“Not easy to do when he crashes your date,” Trevor said. “Maybe you should think about why he did that.”
“What—no, it’s not like that. He’s with Ilsa,” Benji said. “It was just a weird coincidence.”
“Benji, for a super spy, you are being really dense.” Trevor grinned. “Did you know that every time I touched you tonight, Ethan frowned? I was running an experiment. The results are definitive.”
“Could have been coincidence,” Benji said weakly. He didn’t want to let his poor heart hope.
“Look,” Trevor took Benji by the shoulders and angled them so Ethan was in Benji’s line of sight. Then he planted a big, dramatic kiss on Benji’s mouth. Benji remembered at last minute to keep his eyes open, and, holy hell, Trevor was right. Ethan was watching them, and he did not look best pleased.
Trevor pulled away, gave Benji a lopsided grin. “I’ll see you around the office. Good luck.”
Benji watched Trevor go with a twinge of sadness and a feeling of anticipation. Maybe the two of them could become friends. He squared his shoulders and went turned around. He needed answers.
“Trevor’s off, then?” Ilsa said.
“Yep, he had to go,” Benji said shortly. “Anyone want to split a cab?” He had no idea where Ethan lived, or where Ilsa was being put up. Maybe they were staying in the same place. In which case, he was about to be spectacularly embarrassed. But he was sick of hiding everything. It was too exhausting. He had enough deception in his work life. He didn’t need it in his personal life, as well.
“I’ve got to run, actually,” Ilsa said brightly. “Meeting a friend for a late supper.”
“A friend?” Ethan asked with a smirk.
“Well, technically an ex. But we’re friendly. So yes, a friend.” Ilsa smiled. “And she’s always bloody early, so I’m off.” She gave Ethan a peck on the cheek, gave the same to Benji. Then she was gone in a swirl of hair and competency.
Benji took a moment to register the pronoun Ilsa had used. He raised an eyebrow at Ethan, who shook his head. “Don’t look at me like that,” Ethan said.
“Like you’re about to scold me,” Ethan said.
“Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know, Benji. What the hell’s been going on since you got back from Afghanistan?”
Benji glanced around. “Do you really want to do this here?”
“So let’s go,” Ethan said. They walked a block to a main road and Ethan managed to get them a cab with a driver who only grumbled mildly when Ethan said their destination was Georgetown.
Benji wasn’t surprised that Ethan knew where his apartment was. They had a forty-minute drive ahead of them and they couldn’t exactly speak freely. Still, Benji couldn’t hold his tongue.
“So you and…” he trailed off, censoring himself given their unsecured location “…not an ‘item.” He winced at his phrasing.
Ethan actually had the effrontery to laugh. “No. I was as surprised as you when she showed up at the bar the other night. Will didn’t give me a head’s up, and then he asked me to show her around, woo her a little bit, to see if we could get her to sign up with us."
“Oh.” Benji felt ridiculous for jumping to conclusions. “She’s seems really…comfortable with you. She’d be great to have on the team.”
“I think we work well together,” Ethan agreed, “when we communicate. She’s been on her own for a lot of her career, making calls without much discussion. Working with us would be a change for her. I guess I’ve been trying to cultivate a relationship with her.” Benji felt Ethan’s eyes on him. “A working relationship.”
Benji was relieved. He understood where Ethan was coming from, and he actually did think Ilsa would be awesome to have around, especially if he didn’t have to be resentful of her the entire time.
“So you thought we were…together?” Ethan asked.
Benji was glad the cab was dark so Ethan couldn’t see the flush on his cheeks. “I might have made some assumptions based on partial data.”
“And were you…jealous?”
Benji couldn’t decide if Ethan’s tone was teasing or testing. He wasn’t sure he was quite ready to reveal his full hand yet.
“I was confused,” he finally said.
He was spared having to elaborate by the cabdriver, who asked for an address in Georgetown as they approached Key Bridge.
Ethan spoke up, giving an address two blocks from Benji’s apartment.
They rode the rest of the way in silence. Ethan waved Benji’s cash away, handing the driver some bills, and hustled them out of the car.
“So, you want to come up?” Benji asked before he lost his nerve.
“I do,” Ethan said.
Benji suddenly got the feeling that he was out of his depth. He felt like he had that night at Nick’s, before Ilsa arrived, when time moved in slow motion and things seemed to be happening that could not possibly be happening.
They walked in tandem to Benji’s building, a sleek, recently renovated four story apartment building. Benji had chosen it for its relatively easy commute to the office, and the proximity to three excellent coffee shops, but he rarely spent time in his actual apartment, which was on the second floor, rear.
He could have sworn Ethan had never been to his place, but he seemed to know his way around, avoiding the ungodly slow elevator and heading unerringly for the stairs in the back corner of the lobby.
Ethan ran up the two flights as if he were strolling down Fifth Avenue. He wasn’t even breathing hard when Benji caught up with him a few seconds later in front of Benji’s door. Bastard.
Benji fished out his key. “Why do you know where I live?”
“Benji, come on.” Ethan followed him in. “Do you think I’d let you live in an unsecured location? I’ve been all over this place every month since you moved in, sweeping for bugs, etc.”
“I can’t tell if that’s sweet or creepy. Drink?”
“Just water, please.”
Benji went into his small, galley-like kitchen and filled a glass with tap water. He took his time, letting Ethan stew in the living room. He took off his hat, riffled a hand through his hair. He felt tired. He was far too old to be hemming and hawing over a man. So he’d fucked up and misread Ethan and Ilsa’s relationship. It had the effect of showing just how hung up on Ethan he was. And if he couldn’t be honest with that, if their friendship couldn’t handle the revelation, one way or the other, well, so be it.
He swallowed hard and brought out the glass of water. Ethan was standing nonchalantly with his hands in his pockets as he scanned Benji’s bookshelves. But Benji could tell there were nerves underneath his calm façade.
He handed Ethan the glass.
They just stood in silence for a minute.
“Benji—” They spoke over each other and then stopped, smiled awkwardly. Why was this so damned awkward?
“I’m sorry if Ilsa and I made you uncomfortable today,” Ethan said. “We shouldn’t have interrupted your date.”
“Yeah, maybe not,” Benji said. “It was kind of a dick thing to do.”
“Trevor’s really…cool,” Ethan said after searching for a word. “He seems like he’s good to you.”
“It was just one date,” Benji said.
“Yeah, but he’s into you. I can tell.”
Benji hummed noncommittally.
“And you’re my best friend. So I want you to be happy.”
“I’m your--” Benji felt his chest warm at the notion. He considered Ethan his best friend, but had no idea Ethan felt the same way.
“And if being with Trevor makes you happy, then, great. Super. Terrific.” Ethan was saying one thing but his face looked like he was trying to swallow a lemon.
This made Benji incredibly happy. “Well, that means a lot to me, Ethan.” He wasn’t quite ready to let his friend off the hook yet. “You’re my best friend, too, you know.”
“I am?” Ethan looked up at that, his expression so much that of a happy puppy that Benji’s heart swelled a little more.
“Yeah. And Trevor’s nice. But he’s also not stupid. He could see that it would never work between us.”
Ethan’s brow wrinkled. “So you and Trevor aren’t--”
“It’s not going to work out,” Benji said, rather cheerfully.
“Oh, okay,” Ethan sounded relieved, if confused.
“Were you…jealous?” Benji asked, echoing Ethan’s question from before.
He wasn’t expecting the rush of movement as Ethan stepped closer, crowding him against the bookshelves. His pulse began to race, his senses sharpening.
“Fuck yes, I was jealous,” Ethan said, low and fierce. “I hated every minute I had to spend watching the two of you together today. Every time he touched you. Seeing you kiss.”
Ethan wasn’t even touching him, but Benji could feel the energy vibrating off of him. Ethan was the most alive person he knew. He craved his vitality, he needed to get even closer. And then Ethan said, “It was torture.”
Benji felt his buoyant mood evaporate. He hated knowing he’d caused Ethan pain, however unintentional.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “The other night—I didn’t know what you—and then Ilsa came and I thought—Trevor was a pathetic attempt at pushing aside my feelings so we could stay friends.”
“Your feelings?” Ethan whispered. He was so close Benji could see the forest green ring around his mossy irises. Benji wanted to reach out and stroke a hand through his hair. Not yet.
“I was trying to get over you. But it was impossible,” Benji said, holding Ethan’s gaze steadily. His words were infused with the fervency of absolute truth, with all of the emotions he’d gotten so good at bottling away over the years now buzzing just under the surface.
“Thank god,” Ethan said, and he reached out to grasp Benji’s hands in his. It was a simple gesture, almost innocent, but Benji felt the heat, the intensity of this moment down to his bones. “I was going to tell you that night—I was a little nervous, I was working my way up to it. I thought maybe you already knew.”
“Knew what?” Benji asked breathlessly.
“How I felt about you. You’re my best friend, but for a while it’s been—hard, impossible, really—to not want more. To not want everything. I want everything with you, Benji. Julia helped me to see that I was ready. I’m sorry it took me so long to see it.”
“Hey, don’t be sorry. Let’s just start again, okay? Let the last few days pass away. I’ve been an idiot.”
“That makes two of us.” Ethan smiled, brought Benji’s hands to his lips and kissed his knuckles gently. Benji slipped one hand free and stroked it carefully through Ethan’s hair. It was as feather-soft as it looked. He stroked down, cupping the back of Ethan’s head, bringing their mouths together for the first time. The kiss was soft, until it wasn’t. Ethan’s hands found themselves under Benji’s shirt, brushed against his abs, stroked along his sides, leaving him sensitive and desperate for more. Benji couldn’t get enough of running his fingers through Ethan’s hair, over his scalp, down his neck. Ethan’s mouth was hot and demanding. He kissed with the same intensity he did everything else. Benji’s cock was iron hard at imagining what that intensity would be like in the bedroom. He wrenched away from the kiss with a gasp.
“Ethan, you’re my best friend. I’m in love with you. I couldn’t get over you in a million years. And I don’t want to. But, maybe we should go on at least one date before I shag you on my living room floor?”
“Anywhere but a bluegrass festival,” Ethan said, his eyes crinkling in a merry smile.