With a kind of woozy, vestigial chivalry they let Jane have the bed. It wasn’t the way they usually treated her, partly because she would’ve given them a piece of her mind if they had. But under the present circumstances she’d hardly protested, just burrowed into the pillows and fallen asleep mid-nose blow, tissue still clutched to her face.
Benji sat at the foot of the bed, Jane’s feet in his lap, clumsily undoing the laces of her boots. He turned away frequently to cough into his elbow.
It was high season in this part of the Italian Alps, and a room with one queen bed in this authentic (read antiquated) ski chalet was the best they’d been able to manage. The only other pieces of furniture were a low table and a lumpy chintz sofa. Brandt collapsed on the latter, wondering how it was possible to feel so leaden and so light-headed at the same time.
It had been a mistake to keep going, he thought, seeing everything in the glare of fever-lit hindsight. You can say “super agents don’t get the flu” all you want, but you shouldn’t be surprised when viruses don’t actually listen to you.
Of course, Ethan had set the tone. He’d succumbed first, but refused to pay any attention to it, downing decongestants and anti-pyretics by the fistful—tailing their target down one of the black diamond runs even after Jane had pulled off her ski glove, pressed her fingers to his forehead and said, “I think it’s time to consider plan B.”
Ethan had just grinned at her—what else could he do? His voice was too shot to yell over the wind—pulled down his goggles and pushed off. They’d watched. They had probably a hundred specialized skills between them, but not one of them was equipped to match Ethan on a slope of that technical difficulty.
“Poison,” Benji had declared, when he and Jane and Brandt had started sneezing almost simultaneously. Which had seemed unlikely—who would choose a poison designed to basically ache and sniffle and annoy you to death? But then the four of them getting sick at the same time had seemed pretty unlikely too. So they’d let him comb through WHO reports until he’d determined that: yes, there was a flu strain in Europe this year that hadn’t been included in the standard inoculation; no, it wasn’t anything particularly new or deadly; yes, the shot they’d had might help a little—make it more mild.
Brandt had shivered in his state-of-the-art ski parka. If this was a mild version, he didn’t want to think about what the full-strength one was like.
Ethan had actually seemed apologetic about passing it on to the whole team—a new look on him—and had offered to abort the mission so they could get some rest. But no—if he was prepared to tough it out, so were they (God help them and pass the Dayquil, please).
And the mission, somewhat miraculously, had been a success. Though the whole thing had culminated in a chase-slash-shootout in the snowy woods around the resort and had involved 1) snow shoes 2) sub-zero temperatures and 3) did he mention the snow shoes?
At the moment, Ethan was the only one of them still on his feet, bouncing slightly and conducting a phone conversation in Italian so hoarse and rapid Brandt could barely follow it. He lost the thread completely when someone rapped on the door and Ethan interrupted himself to answer it.
He must’ve closed his eyes, too, because the next thing he knew, something cold and plastic-y was being pressed against his cheek. He blinked, startled, and there was Ethan, crouching in front of him with an almost skeletal grin at Brandt’s confusion.
“Drink this,” he said, proffering the water bottle. “And here, they brought up some extra.” A wool blanket landed across Brandt’s knees. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Where’re you going?” Brandt was pretty sure Ethan was in no shape to be going anywhere, but if he was off to disarm a nuclear bomb or something, Brandt should probably know about it, should probably even try to provide some (very debilitated) back-up.
And that was ridiculous. That was too much. That was Ethan taking his responsibility for the team way too far. Brandt started to struggle out from under the blanket, but a coughing fit blindsided him halfway to standing, and by the time he’d recovered Ethan was long gone.
“Brandt.” Someone was tugging at his shoulder as if they didn’t realize how completely impossible it would be for him to sit up right now. “Will. I need you to wake up for a minute.”
The voice was rough, but commanding—completely unmistakable. Brandt groaned and unstuck his gummy eyelids.
This time Ethan was perched on the side of the sofa, vainly trying to correct the miserably awkward angle at which Brandt had fallen asleep. Awake enough now to be annoyed, Brandt shoved his hands away and then very gingerly righted himself. His neck and shoulders felt like someone had put them in a vise and twisted.
“Take these.” Ethan shook something out from a bottle into his hand. “Anti-virals,” he said, to Brandt’s suspicious look. “Might be too late for them to do any good, but you never know.”
Brandt took in the size of the bluish pills. “What’d you do,” he rasped, dismayed to find his voice as wrecked as Ethan’s, “knock over a veterinary hospital?”
“No,” said Ethan dismissively, but something about his expression made Brandt suspect that the pill’s procurement had not been entirely by-the-book. Though that could have just been the way Ethan was squinting in the pale late-afternoon light as if it were causing him physical pain.
Brandt shook his head. “You first. You look like you need them more than I do.”
And it was true. The hand holding the pills shook, and Ethan was bone pale except for his red-rimmed eyes and slashes of color high on his cheekbones. He was breathing hard, too, as if even staying upright was getting to be too much of an effort for him.
But it took more than that to make Ethan Hunt put himself before a team member. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “I got enough for everyone.”
And then, because even in this pitiful state the two of them couldn’t seem to help themselves, they indulged in a ridiculous, glassy-eyed face-off—one that Brandt won, if only by virtue of Ethan having to turn away to cough convulsively into his sleeve.
With a “happy now?” lift of his eyebrows, Ethan downed the pills dry, and then shook out two more for Brandt. Brandt followed suit, and managed to stop himself from gagging as the chalky lumps dragged down his raw throat.
“Right.” Ethan had the grace to smile with a hint of self-mockery. “That’s us done. Now for those two.”
He jerked his chin towards the bed, where Brandt now saw that only the top of one sandy head and one brown one were visible above a heap of quilts and blankets.
“I’ll help,” he said, all annoyance with Ethan’s highhandedness forgotten in concern for the team.
“Nah.” Ethan put a surprisingly gentle hand on his chest and nudged him towards horizontal. “You go back to sleep—I’m sure they won’t be nearly as big babies as you.”
This time Brandt didn’t fight him.
When he surfaced again, the room was dark except for the bedside lamp and the glow of the laptop screen.
Jane and Benji had made themselves a kind of blanket nest on the floor and were sitting close enough together to share an audio splitter for the computer headphones. Jane looked recently showered, and she was wearing a worn-out Mariners hoodie Brandt recognized as Ethan’s. Benji looked just about as disheveled as he had when they’d arrived, though perhaps not shivering quite so hard. They both clutched heavy white mugs of something hot.
Ethan had taken their place on the bed. Or at least Brandt assumed the blanket-covered lump in the middle of the bed was Ethan.
He pushed himself up to get a better look.
“It stirs,” croaked Benji, not moving his eyes from the computer.
“How are you?” Jane asked, taking out one of her earbuds.
“Still among the living,” Brandt told her. “I think,” he added, after he had to pause a moment to let the black dots on the edges of his vision dissolve.
“There’s tea,” Jane said, as he shuffled past them to the bathroom. “And meds are on the counter in there.”
He pissed, splashed some water on his aching face, and chose judiciously from the impressive array of OTC remedies laid out next to the sink, hoping he wasn’t misremembering too many Italian words.
When he came back into the room, he saw that Ethan had thrown off the covers. Sweat was beginning to bead on his face and darken the neck of his shirt.
“Is he okay?” Brandt asked. Jane and Benji looked up from whatever they were watching--something that involved Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as far as Brandt could tell.
“As okay as you can be with a temperature of 103 and a hacking cough,” said Benji.
“At least he’s quieter now,” Jane noted, craning around to get a better look.
“He was just stumbling about when we woke up,” Benji put in. “Pretty much talking to walls. You slept through the whole thing.”
“Sorry,” Brandt said, and he meant it. He tugged the blanket up around Ethan’s chest, as if in apology for not helping out earlier. “Does he need a doctor?”
Jane shook her head. “Not unless he gets worse.”
“Standard flu protocol,” Benji added. “We even got official instructions stating the bleeding obvious: rest, fluids, pain relievers, hope the antivirals work. They offered to evacuate us to some top-notch infectious diseases unit in Bonn. But specialist doctors poking at us day and night?” Benji gave an exaggerated shudder. “No thank you. We told them we’d be better off just taking care of each other.”
Brandt bent to push a clump damp hair off Ethan’s forehead, and froze for a moment when Ethan leaned into his touch. Then he settled himself on the bed as Jane and Benji went back to their movie, rubbing tiny circles into the hot skin of Ethan’s temple.
Taking care of each other, Brandt thought. We’re good at that.