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You've Lost That Loving Feeling

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You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling

 

William glanced at his studying schedule pinned to his dorm room’s wall. He sighed in relief. One chapter of biophysics to go, then he would be done for tonight. He took off his headphones, stood up and went to his fridge, deliberately ignoring his coffeemaker. It was tempting, but he knew damn well he wouldn’t sleep if he drank coffee after 7 p.m. and he needed to get up early the next morning. No caffeine tonight. He opened the fridge and chose a green smoothie he had made that morning, and took a sip while checking his phone.

“Can I come over?”

A text from Ethan. It instantly made William smile and while he was still wondering whether or not he should agree, he heard someone knocking on the door. No more dilemma then. Ethan – 1, biophysics – 0.

He opened the door to find his boyfriend flashing his bright smile at the door, then at William. Ethan, messy dark hair, red hoodie, worn-out jeans, and two pizza boxes in one hand.

“Hello, handsome!” he greeted him. “Fancy some pizza?”

He entered his boyfriend’s room and William kissed him softly to welcome him.

“I just saw your text,” he confessed.

“Yeah, I thought so. I was hungry. After an hour I decided to take control of the situation, and here I am. Didn’t wait for your authorization, sorry. The pizza would have been cold.”

Again, that bright smile from one ear to the other. Ethan kicked off his shoes and made room on the night stand in order to put the pizza boxes on it. Then, sitting on the bed, he opened his arms and invited Will to join him. The young man obliged, and for a few minutes it was only soft kisses, smiles and cuddles.

“Capricciosa and pugliese. I hope it’s okay,” Ethan said after a while, concerned.

“Yes, thank you. You saved me from a green smoothie.”

“Jeez, how can you drink that thing?”

“I don’t know. Ethan… I’m sorry but I still have to work tonight, okay?”

“Okay, I get it,” Ethan sighed. “We eat and then I go back to my room… With my stinky roommate around… And I’ll sleep alone in my cold bed.”

“You’re such a drama queen,” Will laughed. “You can stay here for the night. It’s just that I need to study before joining you.”

“If you join me early enough we can study some anatomy together.”

“I’d really like to, but tonight it’s biophysics.”

Ethan pouted, disappointed, and opened the first pizza box. They started eating.  

“What do biophysics have on me?”

“Nothing, love.”

“Good.”

“How is the studying going?”

Ethan chewed on his pizza bite and avoided the question.

“There’s a new show on Netflix we need to watch together.”

“Ethan…”

“Yeah, yeah, sorry… You have to study.”

“Actually, we have to study.”

“But finals are two months away from now, it’s just so early!” Ethan complained.

“Never too early to start studying. I thought you had started too, by the way. You said you had.”

“Yes but… Listen, Will, I didn’t come here to have that conversation.”

“What conversation?” Will asked.

He was trying to remain calm, but he didn’t like how this evening was turning out. He was starting to panic, almost certain that Ethan was about to say something he didn’t want to hear. His boyfriend put down the piece of pizza he was eating, took a deep breath and stared at William in the eyes.

“I won’t take the exams.”

“What?”

“I quit.”

“But, Ethan…! We’re so close to graduation…”

“Yes, I know, but… What’s the point? I know I won’t do physics all my life. I know that’s not what I want my life to be.”

“But you love it…”

“Yes, I love it. But that doesn’t mean I want to make a living out of it… I want to become a naval aviator, Will. I’m 22 and I won’t get that chance anymore. Physics will still be there when I’m 55, you know, while…”

“What chance?”

Ethan opened his mouth but closed it at once. Will wasn’t going to love it.

“I passed the admission exam in a flight school. I’m joining the Navy,” he confessed.

“What, you- you didn’t tell me!”

“I wasn’t really sure to pass. I thought that if I did pass… It would still be time to tell you then.”

“When was it?”

“Two weeks ago.”

“Oh. I see. And when exactly were you supposed to tell me?”

“Will, don’t get mad, please…”

“I’m not mad! Not at all! I’m disappointed, Ethan. Two weeks and not a word?”

“I was scared to tell you… I know how much you love it here, and how simple it is for us… Same dorm, same classes, same schedule, it’s just so easy to spend time together! I know it will be so much more complicated when I leave…”

“You were scared? Okay, I understand. But you lied to me. Two weeks ago, you said you went home to see your grandma because she was sick, and now you tell me you left to take that exam. You said you had started to study while in fact, you never intended to…”

“Will, there’s no point in studying for exams I won’t take!”

“You could still take them!”

“I don’t want to! I want to be…”

“A pilot, yes, I hear that. You sound like a little boy who sees airplanes and wants to fly.”

“It was my childhood dream, yes, but I don’t see the problem with…”

“It’s not your dream, Ethan. It’s your father’s. He always wanted you to be his perfect double, didn’t he?”

“It has nothing to do with that!”

“You are brilliant, Ethan. Please. Don’t waste it…”

“Waste it? I’m about to live my dream!”

“Yeah, and for how long? When you’ll get older, if you make it so far, they’ll say they don’t need you anymore and you… Ah, fuck. You know that too damn well.”

“Yes, I know. That doesn’t mean staying stuck in a life I don’t want to live is a better option.”

Will stayed numb for a few endless seconds and felt his heart aching in his chest.  

“Ah, yes. College, physics, me. That’s the life you don’t want to live.”

“It’s not what I meant…”

“It’s still what it means. Go, Ethan. Go to some forsaken Navy air station. Go to war. Who am I to deter you?”

Ethan stood up and walked for a few steps, trying to stay calm and to hide the tears his eyes desperately wanted to cry.

“So that’s it, then. That’s how you want it to be?”

“What?” William exclaimed. “How I want it to be? You got to be kidding me. Who walked into the room ready to make all the worst decisions ever?”

“Ah. Yes, of course. I always make the bad decisions. It’s only a bad decision from your point of view, you know. Telling you about the exam was another one…”

Not telling me was a bad idea.”

“And maybe going to college was one, too. Good night, Will. And good luck for the finals. You’ll do great, as always.”

He walked to the door, William stood up and followed him.

“Wait, no, Ethan, wait!”

But the young man had stepped outside and slammed the door. By the time Will reached and reopened it, Ethan was already heading to his own room and locked his door. William knocked on his boyfriend’s door and called his name a hundred times. No answer. He called him on his phone, but Ethan refused every single call. It seemed like every student living at their floor had suddenly things to do outside of their room, and every passer-by gave William a curious look. Some girls giggled that Ethan Hunt was about to be back on the market, some boys made inappropriate comments, some friends asked what was going on. And Will answered none of them. He didn’t know anyway. Was it a break up, was it a temporary storm? He didn’t know. Was he mad at Ethan for not telling him and for that foolish decision? Yes. Was he ready to give up on him because of that? Absolutely not.

The pizza had turned cold when he went back to his room. So, he turned off all the lights and laid on his bed all night, unable to sleep. Ethan – 2, biophysics – 0. He could have drunk that coffee, in the end. He should have.

His lover kept showing up to classes for a few weeks, but as finals were getting closer, he stopped. Will was usually sitting at the front row and couldn’t see him, but his presence kept him from focusing on the lectures nevertheless. And when he dared looking over his shoulder to the higher rows, he would catch Ethan taking notes, pretending to look closely at the prof’s presentation to avoid this gaze he could certainly feel on him. Will thought of going to him at the break every single day, every single hour, but didn’t. And he didn’t think for a second that Ethan was dying to do the same, too. But it wasn’t clear. Who had to apologize, who had done more harm? They couldn’t say. They kept blaming themselves, knowing that the other wasn’t completely right either, but they did nothing about it.

Then one day after finals and before summer break, Will met Ethan’s roommate in the corridor. He was leaving for grad school and was packing his stuff. William glanced at the room. Ethan’s side was already empty, blank, as if that other guy had never had any roommate.

“Hey, hum… Excuse me. Ethan, he… When did he leave?”

“Oh. I thought you knew. He left last week.”

That was it, then. He had left. Without saying goodbye. There was no hope to fix things between them anymore. Ethan hadn’t felt the need to, at least. Now who knew where on Earth he was? William thought of calling, just for the hundredth time that day, like any other day. But that was pointless. As if one phone call after two months of silence would bring Ethan back. As if he would drag his ass back to college for one stupid, delayed phone call.

It was over for real now. They had both chosen their path, and they were not likely to meet ever again.

Chapter Text

Seven years later.

Ethan still couldn’t believe it. They were going to Top Gun. A heroic manoeuvre above the Pacific and they had been given that opportunity, the dream of every naval aviator. Ethan had always been convinced to be one of the best aviators of his generation, but now it was official: Benji and he were part of the elite.

They had arrived in Nevada the previous night. Today classes started, and he couldn’t wait to meet the legendary instructors of Top Gun. Too anxious to be late, Ethan and Benji, his NFO, arrived first in the small meeting room where instructors would give their first briefing. Both had plenty of time to see their new classmates arrive and Ethan detailed every single one of them from head to toes. Benji quickly started to chat with a pilot named Jane and her own NFO, Trevor. Ethan greeted them both but focused more on watching the others who kept coming. They were all new faces to him, but when a copper-haired woman confidently entered the room, Benji softly said to Ethan’s ear:

“You can stop looking for the best of us now. She just walked into the room.”

“Who is she?” Ethan asked.

“Ilsa. Callsign Faust. Expert of technical prowess. The instructors will adore her, she’s brilliant. Sadly, her NFO is unbearable, man, I’d like to replace him.”

“Thank you, Benji. It’s nice to know I can count on your loyalty,” Ethan ironized.

A middle-aged man entered the room, and everyone stopped talking.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I’m Lieutenant commander Phelps, welcome to Top Gun. You are the top one percent of all naval aviators. The elite. The best of the best. But! We’ll make you better. You’ll fly at least two combat missions a day, attend classes in between, and instructors will evaluate your performance. Each combat sequence will give you a different challenge, every time more difficult than the last. We will teach you to fly faster than you ever did, and far more dangerous manoeuvres. The best pilot and their NFO will be given the Top Gun trophy in nine weeks, and if they wish, they’ll have the option to come back here and become instructors themselves. There’s no point for second place here. But I want you to remember that we are all in the same team. Now, dismissed. Your first astrophysics lesson starts in ten minutes on the second floor.”

Most of the young people sighed when the LCDR Phelps announced they would also have theoretical classes with civilian instructors. Ethan internally cheered when he mentioned astrophysics. The young lieutenant “Maverick” never bragged about his academic past, and he would certainly never dare to confess it, but sometimes, Ethan Hunt missed physics. He was the only one excited to walk into the classroom, and Benji was coming along half as enthusiastic, trying to negotiate they wouldn’t sit at the front row -he failed.

The door opened, and Ethan looked over his shoulder to see the instructor come in. The man was tall, had dark blond hair and was wearing a grey suit and a white shirt, without a tie. His facial expression was impressive and made it crystal clear that, even though he was but a civilian, his students would better not disrespect him. He walked confidently between the lines of tables and arrived in front of them all with a slight smile.

“Oh shit!” Ethan whispered.

“What?” Benji asked.

Ethan didn’t answer, but slowly took his Ray-Ban from his jacket pocket. It was maybe a stupid move, because no one was wearing sunglasses inside and that would probably only attract the professor’s gaze, but that’s the only way Ethan could feel a little bit less exposed to the instructor piercing blue eyes. What the hell was he doing there?

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After completing his PhD in astrophysics, William Brandt had been contacted and interviewed by the Pentagon. To this day, he was still surprised he had accepted to work for the Department of Defense. And above all, he was still surprised to be there, in Nevada, coaching the elite of the pilots to be the best ever. It was weird, considering that for months (if not for years) he had blamed the Navy and the Air Force for his ex-boyfriend’s departure. For the most painful break-up he had ever gone through to this day. In the end, these planes had stolen Ethan from him, and there he was, interested in air combat to say the least.

He entered the classroom, ready to meet the pilots he would lecture for the next nine weeks. He finally reached the board and faced them, starting to greet them:

“Good morning. My name is William Brandt, I have a PhD in astrophysics and I’ll be your instructor for nine weeks. We’ll go over some dangerous manoeuvres that you will practice during your training sorties and….”

His eyes fell on him, attracted like iron by a magnetic field. He was hiding behind his sunglasses, yet William recognized him at once, despite the military haircut that had finally tamed his messy hair.

Oh shit!

It had been seven years since he had last seen Ethan, as he was leaving a lecture hall. It was funny that he still remembered that moment so clearly, considering he wasn’t even aware he wouldn’t see Ethan ever again after that. It was after a quantum mechanics class in May. Every student was excited to go out, because it was a perfect day to enjoy the warm and sunny weather and hang out with friends, maybe grab an iced coffee or a cool beer. He had done just that. Sipping an iced coffee on the grass with Alan, talking about the material they had gone through earlier in the afternoon. A part of William had been wondering what Ethan would be up to on a fine summer afternoon like that, since he didn’t need to study anymore. He remembered being impressed he still bothered to attend classes, when really, he didn’t need to anymore.

So here they were again. Face to face, this time. William quickly looked away, but Ethan had obviously noticed the surprised look. He managed to lecture the group as if he didn’t know any of them. Ethan seemed a bit bored, because professor Brandt was only going through basics, but dammit. His voice was powerful and attractive. He talked in a way that could captivate every single student in the room, even Ethan who had heard all of that before. He briefly wondered how William had come to work at Top Gun. It was so unlikely! In the end, he completed every aviator’s dream before Ethan himself. Plus, with his amazing teaching skills, Ethan had always pictured him in front of gigantic lecture halls in a renowned university. He couldn’t hide a nostalgic smile at the memory of hours spent studying in Will’s room. And every time they would grow tired of the material, they would take a break, meaning they would test each other on mathematical prerequisites to be sure they weren’t forgetting useful things for the future. Good days.

At the end of William’s lecture, Ethan asked Benji to wait for him outside. Intrigued, Benji still obliged. The brunette took his time to close his notebook and put his pens away. William was shutting down his computer and tidying up his desk, and Ethan hoped he was doing that on purpose, so that by the time they were both done, they would be alone in the classroom. He went for him. William looked at him from behind the desk, their eyes met for the first time in seven years and two hours.

“Hello, Will,” he whispered.

“What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”

“William, I’m happy to see…”

“You weren’t really focused during my lecture, Lieutenant, were you? May I suggest that you carefully read the first chapter of the textbook before our next class? I wouldn’t want you to choke on some physics basics.”

Ethan tried to say something but was too shocked to speak. Did William just say “look, you still need physics, I told you so” in a disguised way? He bit his lip, looking down at his feet, ashamed and angry.

“Not sure I’ll need that, but okay. Thank you, professor Brandt.”

He walked away and slammed the door, while a similar scene played on repeat in William’s mind. Brandt sighed. Why did he say that? Why did he act so childish? What the hell was wrong with him? Was that some sort of contest he would win by staying mad at the other for the longest time? He shrugged and left the classroom. Hopefully, he would have an opportunity to fix that in the following weeks.

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Chapter Text

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Ethan didn’t fly that afternoon but watched Ilsa and her NFO Walker’s training from the ground. Damn, she could fly for sure. Maybe even better than he did, but he liked d to think his superiority laid in his audacity and tendency to break the rules. His callsign wasn’t “Maverick” for nothing, after all. He couldn’t wait to get some feedback from the instructors. Maybe they wouldn’t approve his style, but he was curious, even though William was still on his mind. Benji had noticed that something was off as soon as he had left the room and Ethan had felt the need to tell him the whole story. There were very few people in the world he had talked to about that, being the only time someone had broken his heart, but Benji deserved to know. He was the brother Ethan didn’t have yet back in the days. However, Ethan didn’t tell him his plans for the late afternoon. He sneaked out of the changing room after training, grabbed his bike and drove to town.

Top Gun was in the middle of nowhere, and that so-called “town” was really just the officers’ houses, a few blocks rent by the students for their nine weeks there, a supermarket, a café to drink during the day, a bar to grab a beer at night, and pretty much nothing else but fields. Ethan had been a bit disappointed to discover that, given he had always dreamt of the initial Top Gun air station in Miramar.

However, in this kind of situation, the small town could help him after all. He had made a simple observation: coffee at Top Gun was shit. William was a coffee addict and had always been very hard to please when it came to the quality of the coffee he was drinking. Therefore, William Brandt needed a reliable coffee supplier near the base. And there weren’t many places like that in the area, were there?

Ethan parked his bike in front of the café and walked in. It was classy and cosy at the same time, with round wooden tables, leather pouffes and armchairs that looked comfy as hell. He immediately craved a nice mug of coffee, a blanket and a seat near a window where he could stay for hours, watching the rain fall, daydreaming while listening to the jazz that was softly playing in the background (it had to be Nat King Cole). That would be nice for another day. For now, he had a heart to reconquer, or at least a talk to have which he had already avoided for much too long.

His eyes scanned the whole café and found him as easily as a missile would have found the target he was locked on. Professor Brandt was sitting in a corner, absently playing with a coffee spoon while reading a book. Ethan smiled instinctively at the view: he would bet on cappuccino and 1984. Will had always loved dystopias and that one was his favourite. Or maybe it wasn’t anymore? Ethan thought, furrowing his brows. Who knew what had happened to Will and his reading tastes in seven years… Seven damn years.

“What can I do for you, sir?” a young woman asked him from behind the counter.

Ethan glanced at their menu.

“Oh, a flat white, please.”

“Coming at once!”

He nodded, then walked across the room to sit in front of William. As he drew the chair to him, the blonde looked up from his book in surprise, opened his mouth and stayed speechless for a few seconds before asking:

“How did you find me?”

He didn’t blame Ethan right away, didn’t call him “Lieutenant” like he had done just a few hours prior. Good omens?

“Easily,” Ethan replied. “The coffee doesn’t taste great at the base, does it? I did the math. I must say, that’s a nice place. Even the music seems to suit you.”

“Why did you even bother to come here?”

“To talk.”

“About what? What do you have to say now that you didn’t need to tell me before leaving college?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll ask again. Why did you come here, Ethan?”

The waitress brought his coffee and he flashed her a bright smile to thank her. The same smile as it used to be. Heart-warming. Seductive. Irresistible.

“Do you want me to leave?”

“You know that I couldn’t bare a waste of coffee.”

Ethan smiled. It wasn’t exactly “I don’t want you to leave, please stay here with me” but it was close, if he was still reading Will’s mind correctly.

“I just…” Ethan started, not sure to accurately word his thoughts, “I thought that we needed to talk. You’re my instructor now, and I feel like… If we don’t talk to each other, there might be some misunderstandings.”

“That’s right, you’re my student. I think we don’t have anything to talk about besides astrophysics. If you fear that I might be unfair to you regarding your marks, don’t worry. I leave my personal life outside of my classroom.”

“We are outside of your classroom,” Ethan reminded him. “And in case you forgot, we have history. And it was all about physics, as I recall.”

William rolled his eyes. He almost wanted to join that words game, but what was the point? He didn’t want to argue with Ethan. Their last argument was still burning in his heart. He closed his book. 1984 indeed. Ethan would have been tempted to smile if it wasn’t for the deadly serious look his ex-boyfriend gave him.

“You want to talk about it? Fine. What is there to say? You literally walked out of my life, and now what? Do you feel guilty? Do you want to make amends?”

“It didn’t happen like that,” Ethan reminded him. “You rejected me because I wasn’t who you wanted me to be anymore.”

“You were still my boyfriend at the time,” William whispered, so softly that Ethan was not sure he had heard it right. “That’s all I wanted you to be. I needed time to process everything you told me that night. I needed time to forgive you for lying to me. Was it that hard to understand? But you didn’t wait for me, did you? I wasn’t the only one to be wrong in that fight and the silence that followed.”

“And I wasn’t either.”

“I know. I guess that, deep inside, I knew from the start that you had already flown away.”

“I shouldn’t have lied to you. I know how wrong that was. And I shouldn’t have disappeared like that. Hell, we were so stupid to let time fly without a word.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“I never regretted the life I have chosen, you know. But I’ve always regretted how it happened. I’m sorry I hurt you in the past.”

“It doesn’t change anything.”

Ethan almost choke on his coffee and William quickly added:

“I mean, I appreciate your apologies, but what are we supposed to do? Make out over coffee and pretend the seven years gap doesn’t exist?”

“No, you’re right,” Ethan sighed. “Are you committed to someone?”

“I am not.”

“Then do you think… Do you want another chance for us? With me?”

William’s jaw dropped in his mug. That was the last thing he expected Ethan to say (not the last thing he hoped, though).

“I… I… I don’t date students, Lieutenant.”

Pushed by the happy memories of their time together that he had remembered all day, and by the fact that their talk was going far better than he had imagined, Ethan had phrased his most ardent wish, oblivious of this tiny detail. Will was his instructor, now.

“…Right.”

“But it was nice to talk to you, in the end.”

“Do you feel better?” Ethan inquired.

“Not really… As I said, it doesn’t change anything. We can’t be together.”

“Give it nine weeks.”

“Before you fly away again? Before I go back to Washington? We’re no longer the people that we used to be, Ethan. You don’t know if you want to date me again. And I don’t know either.”

Ethan nodded. He didn’t recognize himself. Before seeing William in the classroom earlier, he didn’t even think he was still in love. He wasn’t a sentimental guy, nor was he a romantic person. But he had unfinished business with William, and he had never liked to stop in the middle of something. It had always been a natural trait of his, and he had developed that in the field: when he was given a mission, however dangerous or impossible, he flew and didn’t land before it was over. Some named it “recklessness”, he preferred to say “perfectionism”. He didn’t think of it as a flaw. In fact, that was very useful in his work.

With William though, he wasn’t certain it was a good idea to push through. He was right. Damn, Will was always right. He didn’t know if he wanted to date him. He only knew he would want to date Will again as he was before for a little longer if he was still the same Ethan as he once was, too. And he knew he wanted to make things right with him. Because they had both acted like fools and none of them deserved it to end that way between them.

“We’ll see who we’ve become soon enough, I guess?”

“Yes.”

Ethan drank the last drops of his coffee, fixed his jacked and stood up.

“I’ll leave you to your book, then. Thank you for not pushing me away. This time.”

“It was better to talk here than in the classroom, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. Good evening.”

He walked away. Three steps, then William’s voice held him back.

“Ethan?”

That was the first time in seven years he heard that voice say his name in a tone that wasn’t angry at him. William’s voice still had the power to drive him mad. He faced him again.

“Yes?”

“Congratulations on Top Gun, by the way.”

Ethan smiled, and Will shyly did the same even though his smile remained almost invisible.

“Thank you.”

And then he walked away, didn’t look back. He climbed on his bike and rode all the way back to his block, relieved that his ex-lover hadn’t say that he didn’t have any feelings left for him. He could not think of anything else. This idea kept rushing back in his mind, over and over again, and everything that went wrong between them, so long ago and just now, seemed to vanish.  

It’s only when William was ready to go and went to the counter to pay the bill, that he realized Ethan didn’t pay for his coffee. The instructor smiled. He knew Ethan: the pilot hadn’t simply forgotten, he was never that distracted. That was intentional. He knew that Will would pay for him, and then all he had to do was suggesting he redeemed a coffee. Smooth way to ask for a (second?) date, really.

William sighed while sitting in his car. The afternoon had indeed taken an unexpected turn, and he couldn’t decide if it was a bad or a good thing. On a personal level, it felt good. They finally had had the talk they should have had long ago. And Ethan had apologized. And Ethan had thought of getting back with him. He would have felt so happy and light-hearted, but he had to face it: professionally speaking, it was a terrible, terrible situation.

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Chapter Text

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William waited until the next week to make his move. He had three lectures a week at Top Gun. The remaining two went quite well. Ethan didn’t seat at the front row anymore, but greeted him as the other pilots did, and flashed him his bright smile like a kid proud of his last prank to date. Beside that, nothing could have revealed that they had history. And Ethan was a physics nerd, it could explain why he was so enthusiastic when walking into Brandt’s classroom. At the end of the fifth lesson, on a Wednesday afternoon, the instructor gave back papers that the students had written the previous week on tactics they would apply in a given situation. Ethan, who was dying to see William’s next move, didn’t expect to find a post-it pasted on his report.

“4:30 sharp at the café.

Classified.

Benji opened wide eyes reading this, but Ethan had a triumphant smile. Finally, Brandt was taking action.

“That’s so reckless!” Benji objected. “That’s the only café in town. Obviously everyone goes there! Someone will see you.”

Ethan shrugged. Reckless? Bold from William, sure. But nothing new to him. He had give or take an hour ahead of him. He went home with Benji, who kept saying it was a bad idea, before each of them headed to their respective flat. It was an ugly building, looking like a military tower. The apartments weren’t pretty either, barely decorated, and obviously not comfortable, being mostly destined to soldiers and pilots in training at Top Gun. Ethan didn’t really mind. He only needed a bed and a shower. After years in barracks, he had to admit that he liked having some personal space again. It was almost like having a normal life. A life he could have had, whispered an annoying cranky voice in his head.

He took off his flight suit and went straight to the bathroom. He felt foolish to prettify himself like that when he put on a white shirt and a pair of jeans. William hadn’t seen him like that since their two-years anniversary back in college, and this café wasn’t half as fancy as the restaurant he had taken Ethan to back in the days. (He had felt underdressed at the time. Now he was feeling overdressed for the occasion.) He had no choice: he had nothing else to wear except for flight suits and his uniform.  

He rode to the café on his bike and arrived precisely on time, only to find William leaning on his car, arms crossed on his chest. There was nobody else around, no light coming from the café, and the curtains were down. On the door, a sign told them “sorry, we’re closed”.

“It’s closed,” Ethan noted.

“Oh. Really?”  

“You spend your life here. You knew it would be closed today.”

“You still owe me a coffee and it’d better be a good one.”

“My place?”

“Is there anywhere else we could go?”

“It depends. How many miles would you drive for a coffee?”

“You have no idea.”

“I have a moka pot at my flat.”

“And how is the coffee?”

“It tastes better than no coffee at all.”

“We take your bike.”

Ethan vaguely thought that his plan backfired as William climbed behind him on the bike and he gave him his spare helmet. But he didn’t mind, it was fair enough. Instead, he was wondering what his unexpected guest had in mind and what he was planning to do once at Ethan’s place. Maybe it was only a strategy to avoid being seen together in public, just as Benji had suggested. Maybe he had other plans. Ethan couldn’t wait to find out, even though he felt more stressed by the idea of William coming over than he was when he flew on his own for the first time.

William, however, was not sure that it was a good idea to spend any more time with his pilot. He didn’t know what he wanted this odd date to be. But Ethan had challenged him by his behaviour the other day, and William wasn’t used to let others have fun at his expense without fighting back. He wasn’t a coward and didn’t want to appear like one, especially to his ex-lover’s eyes. He had to respond by another challenge. Maybe he was playing Ethan’s game, but at least he was adding his own rules. His mind was wandering miles away from this very moment, and without thinking twice about it, he grasped Ethan’s waist as he was speeding up. William realised what he was doing only when he felt the man tighten under his touch. He thought of letting go, but it was too late now: Ethan couldn’t know that he was making him nervous. Besides, William wasn’t used to ride a bike, and honestly, he needed to hold something to fight the fear of falling off because Ethan was driving too fast to his taste. And the pilot didn’t say anything, didn’t ask him to release his body. Underneath his helmet, he was smiling.

By the time they reached Ethan’s block, he had put on a straight face again. He took off his helmet, William gave back the second one, and Ethan led him all the way to his flat, on the third floor. When he opened the door, Will entered the apartment, intrigued. Then he frowned and said blatantly:

“This is rather ugly.”

“Thank you,” Ethan laughed. “I assume you don’t live in a similar building.”

“No. I have a house in town. Which looks pretty good, at that.”

“Lucky you.”

William walked further into the flat, on the unfriendly tiling, analysing this new environment. It was mostly… Bare. Some grey steel furniture that could have known WWII was breaking the blankness of the white walls. The kitchen seemed decades old as well. Will barely dared to sit on the beat-up couch when Ethan invited him to.

“I’ll make some coffee.”

The young pilot left his phone on the coffee table in front of William, after he had carefully chosen some music to blast and overcome the awkward silence. How nice of him. The scientist could not help but notice that Ethan had put on shuffle a playlist of tunes from the eighties. Out of habit or deliberate choice? William felt a tiny hope emerging in his heart. Maybe, Ethan remembered. Despising modern music, Will never listened to anything past the eighties. Ethan preferred contemporary rock n roll. Beside jazz, they had always agreed on classic rock from the eighties in the past. Maybe Ethan had not forgotten that… Maybe he still remembered Will’s character traits with some kind of fondness.

Even the music seems to suit you.”  

Obviously, he remembered. William smiled, a bit moved. Then he realised and thought:

I’m so, so screwed.

Ethan got back from the kitchen with two mugs of coffee to the sound of The Pretenders and put them down on the table. He didn’t sit next to William, but asked:

“You still take an awful lot of milk in your coffee?”

“Nope. Not as much as before.”

“But still some?”

“Yes, please.”

Ethan nodded and fetched a milk bottle from the fridge, handing it to William before finally sitting next to him. They both felt a bit awkward.

“Cheers, then,” Ethan said.

“Cheers. Let’s taste this…”

Ethan laughed, making the surrounding atmosphere less tensed at once.

“Oh, please! The government trusts me with their planes, you can trust me for a cup of coffee.”

“Fair enough. But I don’t trust the government when it comes to coffee.”

William brought the mug to his lips and instantly felt the familiar burning bitterness of the warm beverage. He let the gulp wander in his mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it.

“Not bad,” he admitted.

“Thank God!” Ethan exaggeratedly sighed in relief, half laughing and falling backwards in the couch.

William smiled but didn’t answer. Silence fell again between them. It wasn’t easy to know what to say after seven years. Was it even possible to catch up over coffee? In their case? They were the same people but different ones at the same time. And William feared to mistake Ethan for who he was before, just as Ethan feared to hurt William by mistaking him for who he was seven years ago. The person he had known, loved and understood the most in his life. What if that man didn’t exist anymore, at all? Ethan was scared to find out, but curious nevertheless.

“So, what happened?” he asked out of the blue.

“What do you mean?”

“We must have a lot to tell each other after seven years, am I right? And yet we can’t find anything to say. Come on, tell me how you ended up working at Top Gun before I even got the chance to dream about it.”

“Oh. It was a completely random act of fate. I got my PhD three years ago and at the time I was almost certain that I’d find a job right away, that every college and university would want me. I was so wrong. Old professors are clinging on to their job as if they were still up to date with the latest progress in their field, while in fact their young PhDs do all the work. The academic world was slowly making me sick, so I quitted. I considered leaving the country for a while, but the Pentagon offered me a job that involved teaching and I said yes. It’s been two years now. Life over here is not exactly exciting when you’re staying on the ground, but it suits me for now. What about you?”

“Oh. You know. Intense training at first, then I travelled a bit around the world… I’ve seen some ugly stuff… I don’t really know if I want to see that all my life.”

“So, you thought Top Gun would be an opportunity to be an instructor yourself, right?”

“Why not?” Ethan asked with a smile.

A few seconds passed without them exchanging a word. William, thinking about Ethan’s words, was sipping his coffee. It tasted really good indeed. At least, his students had nice coffee pots. It didn’t make up for the ugly flats, but that was still something.

“Any news of the others?”

“What, from college? Hum. Sometimes. It was a bit weird, you know. I met a lot of them thanks to you, and when you… Left, I… I felt as if they were all against me. That wasn’t true, of course, but everything has been different since then. Luther refused to talk to me ever again, I don’t know what you told him, that your feelings were hurt or something.”

“Hey! I didn’t tell him anything. Same old Luther,” Ethan laughed. “We’re still in touch.”

“I never doubted it. Jack, Sarah, Declan, Zhen though, they needed time to process I wasn’t exactly a bad guy, but we remained friends in the end. When I stayed in college for my thesis, they all went on with their lives miles away from me. We text a bit sometimes, for our birthdays and all.”

“I see. So you still got the same phone number?”

“…Maybe? Do you still have it?” William asked, surprised.

“Sure.”

“I don’t know what to do with that information.”

“And I don’t know what I’ll do with your phone number. The future will tell, I guess.”

“But what do we do with the present?”

“What about we learn from the past and prepare a better future?”

William finished his cup of coffee and silently nodded. Learning from the past. That could mean anything. That could mean they were not supposed to end up together because history would repeat itself. That could mean it would never work. That could mean Ethan didn’t want anything at all, after all. That could mean they just had to communicate better. That could mean they had to let go of their egos and stand up for a future together, despite fights, misunderstandings and pride. That could mean anything. That could mean nothing.

“Thank you for the coffee,” William said as he stood up.

“Are you leaving already?”

“I won’t bother you any longer. You have work to do. I’ll see you in class tomorrow.”

“Yes. Of course.”

William smiled and walked away, finding his way out.

“But you owe me a visit to your pretty house!” Ethan’s voice shouted from the couch.

The civilian didn’t turn around but grinned to himself. He could picture Ethan doing exactly the same, proud of his next move on the chessboard.

“I work for the Pentagon. My address is classified. You could come over, but then I’d have to kill you.”

“I’m ready to die for my country.”

“What about Friday night?”

“Are you asking me out for dinner?” Ethan teased Will.

“Or am I asking you out for your execution? You’ll get further instructions, Lieutenant.”

This time, the word didn’t sound like a barrier between them, more like an inside joke. As if William was teasing him. Ethan liked it. Maybe it was the thrill of playing a game and the ambition to win it that made him eager to keep daring Will, but he was feeling overexcited to see his professor again, only this time in the intimacy of his house.  

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Chapter Text

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The next morning, Ethan and Benji were flying with Ilsa and her unfriendly NFO against the instructors Phelps and Krieger. Their previous sorties had gone well, they had locked their targets quite easily. But the pilot was feeling more anxious this time. “Faust” was talented, and she had already conquered everyone’s hearts. Rumour had it amongst the students that she would certainly win the trophy at the end of the programme. Ethan had gotten some mixed report: he had skills but needed to be more reliable in teamwork. Having the favourite as his wingman to defeat the instructors was putting him under yet again more pressure. He was incredibly excited nevertheless, just as every time he climbed to his plane.

He felt his stomach familiarly tighten as the engines started to roar. Ilsa gave him a thumb up before taking off, and he followed her quickly. He reached the sky and felt at home instantly. He could naturally stay focus and alert up here, it was just as if he didn’t need to think anymore. He was born to do this. Adrenaline spread in his veins and the chase began.

Flying at this speed was one of the most thrilling things one could imagine and it still amazed Ethan, every single time, that it was part of his daily life. Their adversary was LCDR Phelps himself, known as the best pilot of his generation. It would be quite a challenge.

Faust? Fly exactly beneath me. We’ll fly over him, he’ll focus on you, and at the last minute I’ll speed up to lock on to him from behind.

Maverick,” answered August’s voice, “This is about team work!

Alright, copy that Maverick. We distract him and then I cover you.” Ilsa agreed.

They flew in formation and initiated this strategy, but it didn’t go as planned. Phelps didn’t let them fly over him that easily. He went up fast, almost as soon as they engaged, and by the time they understood that, he had the chance to take Ilsa down. Ethan reacted without even thinking about it and rose up to Phelps’ altitude.

Holy shit Ethan!!” Benji exclaimed. “Head-to-head?

Ethan accelerated and headed for his adversary.

What are you doing exactly?” Ilsa asked.

I’ll fly over him at the last minute. Be ready in case I miss him.

I don’t like his tone.” Walker commented.

Ethan proceeded nevertheless and rose the nose of his plane as planned, except Phelps seized the occasion to do the same while speeding up. He wrapped Ethan in his tracks and, in a real fight, Ethan and Benji would have been slaughtered by Phelps’ guns, just as Ilsa was positioning herself to lock a missile on to their instructor.

Maverick’s dead. Everyone goes home.” Walker announced with a funereal voice.

“Dammit.” Ethan cursed.

They landed without a word, meeting up on the deck for a debriefing. Ethan knew he would not like what he would hear. Something about recklessness, working alone, being an individualist, and so on. He got just that, but with the infuriated voice of LCDR Phelps and a murdering look from Walker to top it all. Great. He was good at making friends over there.

“Dismissed.” Phelps said eventually.  

Ethan walked away with his tail between his legs. He wasn’t used to failure, therefore he was feeling miserable and blaming himself, starting to believe he was indeed reckless, if not stupid, when Ilsa’s voice came from behind him. 

“Hey, Maverick?”

“What?”

“I’m impressed.”

“By my mediocrity?”

“No, by your audacity. Out there, you can’t always act by the book. I think you know that.”

“Yes. That’s an excuse my hierarchy is tired to hear.”

She laughed.

“You took risks I would never take, and if that makes you feel better, I’d say that makes you a more efficient pilot than I’ll ever be.”

“You could have taken him down if it wasn’t for my stupidity.”

“I needed just two extra seconds of your stupidity to take him down. I’m not mad at you, Ethan. Walker is, but he’s mad at everyone for everything. What about we all grab a beer together tonight? They keep saying we’re on the same team, but we barely know each other.”

Woah. Did he just receive an invitation to socialize? Awesome. He was good at making friends over there.

“Hum, uh, yes, okay. I’ll tell Benji. Thank you for the initiative. And for, you know… Inviting me, aka today’s disaster.”

“I just told you that I was impressed!” Ilsa laughed. “Great. I’ll ask everyone to come over. See you tonight! 9 p.m.!”

She waved at him with a smile and got inside the building, while Ethan walked around it to pick up his bike and head home with Benji. They collapsed at Ethan’s, exhausted but enthusiastic at the idea of going out that night -that happened so rarely, and they weren’t even on leave. Benji took a shower while Ethan started to cook: a deal they had made quickly after their arrival at Top Gun, since the NFO kept unexpectedly crashing at Ethan’s flat anyway, half burnt every time he tried to cook. Tonight, the pilot was going for hamburgers with a bunch of vegetables between the beef and the bun: sliced tomatoes, rucola, mushrooms and onions. It was ready to serve by the time Benji got out of the bathroom, and he helped setting the table before they started to eat.

“By the way. How is it going with Mister Brandt? You didn’t tell me about yesterday’s date. Huuuum, delicious. With the fried onions, love it.”

“It went… Well, I suppose. I’m having dinner at his place tomorrow night.”

“Oh… Oh! Man, do you have wine to bring along?”

“’Course I do, who do you think I am?” Ethan laughed.

“But are you… Like… Back together?”

“Oh, no. We’re testing the waters… We’re challenging each other. But don’t tell anyone. No one can know that we’re closer than we seem. It’s a pretty big deal, him being our instructor and all.”

“Of course! You can trust me on this. You should see that smile on your face, dude.”

“What?”

“Nothing. You’re cute.”

“Shut up and eat, Benji.”

Ethan wasn’t used to talk about his feelings and silently thanked Benji for not asking him to. They went on to lighter subjects and, while Benji was washing the dishes, Ethan went to the bathroom too.

At 9 p.m. sharp, they were in front of the bar and spotted Ilsa among a few people. Jane, Trevor, and some that Ethan only knew by their callsigns -which he felt a bit ashamed of. Benji and he received a warm welcome from everyone, and they entered the bar together. Few people were already sitting in the room, the students easily found a table for their small band. Beers and cocktails orders quickly arrived, and they started getting to know each other. Soon they were speaking as if they had known each other all their lives. It felt good. Ethan was truly happy with how this evening had turned out, and how easy it was to get along with his colleagues, so to speak.

Ethan felt his phone vibrate in his jeans pocket and checked it. He was surprised to find a text from Will after all these years, but it had to be the instructions for tomorrow night that the professor had promised him. He opened the text and found an address. The next day at 7 p.m. he would have dinner with William Brandt. He didn’t realise that he was grinning at his phone all along.

“Hey, Ethan?” Trevor teased him. “Who is making you smile like that, your girlfriend?”

Ethan stopped smiling at once and felt his cheeks burn. Great, he was blushing now? Will had a terrible effect on him. Luckily the room was barely lit so no one had had the chance to notice. Ethan finally stuttered:

“N-No, no, I don’t have a girlfriend.”

Disappointed sighs came from everyone, so Benji -a bit tipsy already- felt the need to add:

“But he has someone in mind!”

He winked at Ethan who could simply not believe his ears. Benji had promised him just two hours earlier that he wouldn’t say anything and yet, he was dropping that kind of bomb in front of basically everyone in the area who couldn’t know about him and Brandt?

“Oh!” Jane exclaimed, suddenly interested. “Who is she?”

Ethan would have liked to cheer in relief. For once, heteronormativity would spare him a lot of trouble. As it seemed, no one around the table was assuming he could date anyone but women.

“Or he?” asked a boy Ethan had not yet really talked to, named Billy.

Shit.

“Is it someone from Top Gun?”

Shit shit shit.

Some heads turned to Ilsa. Great. Ethan didn’t know anymore what was worse: people finding out about Will, or everyone thinking he had a crush on Ilsa. He had to deny everything as quickly as possible.

“No,” Ethan eventually answered. “I don’t have any boyfriend or girlfriend, nor anyone in mind at the moment.” He forced himself to smile. “Benji is just always teasing me about it.”

Disappointed noises again, but Ethan was happy to get rid of the gossip that easily. The discussion went on, but he didn’t pay attention. He sighed. In fact, that would be nice to call William his boyfriend again. He would be so proud to have William as his boyfriend again. But sadly, he had to shut up about it -for now, at least. He had not said anything to anyone about Will for seven years, and it only started to burden him now.

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The great thing about cooking was that it could keep your mind busy miles away from things that were freaking you out. Maybe that was the reason why William had prepared a three-course meal. First, lettuce, tomatoes and some mozzarella balls -classic. As a main dish, salmon teriyaki, rice and sautéed vegetables, and an apple pie for dessert because it was the only one William could bake -and there was no point to buy something else, because then he would have had way too much time to overthink about his student who also happened to be his ex and was coming over for dinner.

He was removing the pie from the oven when he distinctly heard the bell tinkling at the front door. He secured the pie on the countertop, closed the oven, took a deep breath and walked to the entrance, quickly checking his looks in the mirror in the hall. Maybe it was still possible to cancel, to pretend he wasn’t there and to stand Ethan up, like some sort of cruel revenge he didn’t even deserve. Will rolled his eyes at the thought and opened the door anyway. Ethan Hunt, as perfect as always, wearing his white shirt, black jeans, and holding a bottle of white wine in one hand, flashed him a bright smile from the threshold.

“7 p.m.!” he exclaimed.

“Always on time, I see. Come in.”

Ethan followed him into the house, which was small but looked nice. He could hear Nina Simone smoothly sing in the background and the characteristic sound of old records. The parquet creaked under his feet, and William asked him if he didn’t mind taking off his shoes. He obliged. On the left side of the hallway, a door opened to the kitchen, the table all set on the island in the middle of the room.

“It smells very good in here.” Ethan couldn’t help but notice.

“I hope it’s gonna taste as good as it smells…”

Ethan’s gaze wandered through the first floor. The living room was bright thanks to a large bay window. Leather sofas seemed comfortable, and the huge bookshelf on the wall didn’t surprise the guest considering he was standing in Will’s house.

“Woah. It’s a lot prettier than my flat.”

“Still not convinced you should have gotten a PhD?”

Ethan didn’t retort. He realised he was still holding the wine bottle in his hand.

“Oh, I brought some wine, by the way…”

“Thank you! You really shouldn’t have bothered…”

Ethan joined him in the kitchen again and quickly found a corkscrew to open the bottle. Two glasses were already ready on the table and he filled them up before Will got the chance to protest.  He gave one to his host, and said:

“Cheers?”

“To what?”

“What do you want to celebrate?”

Will looked down at his feet for a quick moment, thinking.

“Redemption?”

Ethan smiled. He wouldn’t have phrased it like that. “New beginnings” or “second chances” sounded more accurate, but he could do with redemption: they had both acknowledged their wrongs and more or less confessed that they were feeling guilty about them. It was indeed some kind of redemption.

“Cheers to redemption it is, then.”

He raised his glass, touched William’s, and they both took a sip.

“It’s really good,” the professor commented, amazed.

“I’m glad to hear it.”

William invited Ethan to sit down on a bar stool and he brought the starters on plates. Somehow, they both ended up remembering their last meal together -half-eaten pizza, shared on William’s bed- and hoped it wouldn’t end the same way as it did back then. They ate the salad while talking about the easiest stuff they could think of, meaning the discussion mostly revolved around Top Gun and flights and Ethan’s performances -he was displeased to learn that, as an instructor, William was aware of his students’ successes and failures in the sky and, really, he regretted that the last disaster to date had happened just the day before their dinner.

The talk took an unexpected turn when William started to dish out the vegetables to accommodate the salmon. Ethan noticed he was being very careful with what he was putting on the student’s plate and asked:

“What are you doing?”

“I just remembered you don’t like zucchini, so I won’t give you any. I’m sorry.”

Ethan frowned.

“Will, it’s fine. You didn’t have to remember that, don’t bother, I’ll eat it!”

But Will quietly proceeded before giving him his plate, the fish in the middle, rice to the right and vegetables to the left, with a slice of lemon on top.

“Thank you. But, you know… I would have been polite and eaten everything.”

“Yeah, but you don’t like it. I remembered. Let’s not spoil your dinner. It’s weird that I forgot, even. When we… You know. Back in the days I had completely banned zucchini from my food, not intentionally, but I stopped putting some in my meals when you were coming over. It took me years to realise that I hadn’t eaten zucchinis since we… Broke up. I guess it just became a habit again.”

“I’m still impressed you managed to remember it last minute.”

“You don’t remember that kind of thing?”

“I have an excellent memory.” Ethan reminded him before taking a bite. “Oh my god. This is delicious.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really! It tastes amazing! You’ve always been a great cook…”

“I guess you do have an excellent memory after all,” William chuckled.

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