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Freefall

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VIRGINIA

Will wakes to the touch of a hand, curving soft lines against the ebb and swell of his back. Long fingers, thick calluses, fingernails bitten to the quick. Ethan’s hand.

“Good morning,” Ethan says, feeling him stir, a smile in his voice.

Will groans into the pillow. “If that clock’s not in double-digits I am not interested, Hunt. It’s a Saturday. Even the IMF gets a goddamn break on a goddamn Saturday.”

“It’s 11:03,” Ethan protests mildly, his hand still idly wandering.

Will sighs, shoves the pillow away and pushes himself upright, casting him a baleful glare. “The fuck have you been doing since 5 a.m. anyway?”

“I woke you up?”

“You always wake me up, asshole.”

Will lies back against the headboard, yawning hugely and pushing some of the sleep from his eyes with the crux of his hand. “I went for a run,” Ethan says, catching hold of Will’s other hand. “And we needed milk,” he adds, a little softer than before.

There’s a tone there Will knows too well. “We needed milk or we needed milk?” he asks; he can tell Ethan knows what he means by the taut snap of his jaw, the tension in the lines around his eyes. Ethan nods once.

“Both, actually.” He places a slim black smartphone on the table beside the bed. “I’ve already watched mine.”

Will looks across at it, the press of Ethan’s fingers warm against his own. We could just not, he wants to say. They’re meant to be driving to Richmond today to visit Ethan’s mother; Will’s meant to be redecorating the hall tomorrow; they’re hardly the only team the IMF has at its beck and call. But he can tell from the set of Ethan’s shoulders and a grimness in his eye that he’s already long resolved to go, and Will’s spent too many nights ripped of sleep, staring blind at the floor, heart in his mouth at every buzz of the phone – there’s a reason they’re inseparable in the field nowadays. Will can no longer let him go alone. He reaches over, picks up the phone, and lets it play.

Matthew Johnson, it tells him; birthplace Manchester, England; third from Cambridge, graduated 1993; made his fortune in importing expensive produce from India into Europe and the United States. Suspected of fraud by separate branches of the C.I.A., F.B.I. and M.I.6., but no conviction stands. Has subsequently become involved with trading British and American secrets with extremists.

Recent intelligence suggests he intends to purchase the quantity and location of American submarine dispersals in the next quarter, with plans to sell this information on to the highest bidder. He meets with Ivaniš Jovanović, a known arms dealer with widespread criminal connections, at his holiday residence in Kraljevica in three days. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to intercept this transaction and to replace and destroy the master copies of any and all damaging information Johnson may possess. As always, any detection will lead to the subsequent disavowal of any and all team members whose anonymity is compromised. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.

He flicks the phone away as the memory card sizzles and dies in an acrid snap of burning plastic, and stares blankly at his hands. “Croatia,” he says, voice quiet and a little rough.

Ethan’s hand tightens briefly. “Nothing happened in Croatia,” he reminds him softly, but Will can’t help the knot of disquiet in his gut; he nods absently, but doesn’t move his eyes from his hands. There’s something not quite right about it; something out of his sight, locked down in the basest part of his brain, setting his guts and the nerves of his teeth on edge and telling him he should not go.

He lets out a long, slow breath. “I don’t like it,” he admits, tone tight and terse.

Ethan frowns at him, nonplussed. “How come?”

He sighs, shakes his head. “Just a hunch.” He can’t let Ethan go out there alone because of a hunch. “You ring your mother,” he says, finally. “I’ll pack. When do we fly out?”

A grin bursts across Ethan’s face, huge and bright, and he’s such a child sometimes. “16:00 hours, and I packed while you were sleeping.” He reaches over and catches the back of Will’s head with his hand; kisses him long and slow and deep. “You’re far too predictable,” he murmurs, smile obscene, keeping their heads pressed close even when he breaks away.

“Only when it’s you,” Will amends quietly when he leans in again, but somehow even Ethan’s warm, steady hands against his waist can’t dissipate the hot nest of fear tangled up inside him.

Ethan nudges him back with the tips of his fingers, folds his nose in an exaggerated wrinkle. “You smell like my ass, Brandt,” he murmurs, still grinning. “I’m not taking you anywhere like that.”

Will sends an ill-judged slap at the top of Ethan’s head and drags himself into their shower, dropping his loose, butter-soft shirt and shorts on the cool, hard tiles. He waits until it builds up to as hot as he can stand and then steps beneath the spray, lets it fall hot and hard against the back of his neck, tries to drive some of his jitters away. Croatia is meaningless, he tells himself; he thinks of Julia, safe in Seattle. He thinks of his team, and how proud he is of them, how often they’ve had his back.

Ethan snags him en route back to their room, towel-clad and still a little damp. He hustles Will up against the wall, and though Will makes a show of trying to escape once he traps him there with a hand on each side and kisses him, hot and soft and slow, Will’s perfectly happy to stay right where he is. “Better?” he murmurs once Ethan pulls away.

“Much,” is his reply, thumbing idly at the soft skin that rests at Will’s wrists. His eyes, however, are locked on the leather cord that lies ever-present around Will’s neck, the dull silver coin that rests in the crux of his collarbones; Will’s gut squirms, and he tries to avoid catching his gaze, tries to distract him with a small, quick shift of his hips, a half-hearted attempt to escape. So far, Ethan has never asked, and honestly Will should credit him for it; but his gaze has never been far away, especially at moments like these.

“Ethan,” Will says quietly, tensing his arms gently beneath Ethan’s grip. It’s hardly a great danger to him; he could flip him off and break free as easy as breathing, but it’s so very far from what he wants to do.

Ethan ignores him. “The man who gave you this. Will you tell me his name?” he asks, tone cool, and fuck, there’s a reason why the guy has been amongst their best ranking field operatives for the last ten years.

Will swallows, his throat suddenly more than a little tight. “Arthur,” he replies, trying to keep his voice calm. He smiles slowly, dirtily, bucks his hips in a different way, tries to divert his attention. “He’s not competition, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

Ethan lets him go. The cool air of the hallway seems to press up against him, work into the vacuum where Ethan’s hands had lain moments before. “We should hit the road in fifteen,” he says, tone dangerously nonchalant. “We can grab lunch at the airport before we leave.”

Will watches him go, his hand at his throat, his thumb tracing the press of the leather against his neck. He’s got no one but himself to blame; he should have told Ethan a long time ago, should have expected him to snap long before now – but the idea of Ethan knowing what he was, what he might have been, chills him to the bone. He sucks in a breath through his teeth, the steady jangling of his nerves back in full force. Get the mission done, he thinks, and then he’ll tell him all.

 

 

 

 

Will’s utterly unsurprised to find Jane booked into a seat two aisles behind them. He stumbles into her in a cheap airport café as he decides to reintroduce his brain to caffeine; Ethan’s wandered off to buy four million packs of batteries or accost the pilot about landing procedures or deal with whatever little niggle has made him paranoid this time. “Benji’s meeting us there,” she supplements with a smile after they exchange hugs. “He’s back with his parents in London for the week.”

“How’s Chicago?”

She pulls a face. “Cold, and way too far from Virginia for my liking, but I’ll probably be back by the new year.” She pauses for a moment, looking almost nervous, which Will finds amusing from a woman who’s capable of incapacitating grown men more efficiently than most Marines. “And how is everything?”

He grins as he catches sight of Ethan heading their way, conspicuously inconspicuous in his dark hoodie and jeans against the brightly-dressed, bustling crowd, an overwhelming surge of something that makes his stomach sweep. “Everything’s good, actually. Really good.”

“Okay,” she replies, relaxing slightly, and smiles at him in return. “So long as everything’s good.”

The flight is long and dull and typical, with unappetising food, shrieking children and too-soft seats. They’re used to flying private; usually the IMF shells out to transport them around the place at least, but with Johnson landing in Croatia in a matter of days they daren’t be so conspicuous. They are allocated a more elaborate hotel when they arrive, but mainly for the view it affords over Johnson’s sprawling, expensive villa, clinging to the very lip of the coastline, more hanging into open air than squatting on solid ground.

On arrival, Will takes up occupation in the crow’s nest, as it were, perched on the balcony with what essentially constitute sophisticated binoculars pressed against his face, attempting to get some further lowdown on the layout of the property than the already excessive blueprints Benji’s acquiring for them in the room below. Will’s always been a sucker for accuracy, and sometimes he prefers a little old-fashioned surveillance to Benji’s dubious findings from Wikipedia. As far as he can tell, there’s nothing particularly mysterious about the place; four walls, a roof, a maelstrom of panicking servants trying to get the place ready for their master’s arrival. He can’t imagine Johnson visits it more than once a year at least. He sighs, straightens up and rolls the crook out of his neck. The light’s fading, the sky filled to bulging with the colour of honeysuckle and lavender; he needs food, and rest, but most of all he very much needs not to be in Croatia.

As he turns to go back inside, he’s stopped by steady hands about his waist and a quick press of lips to the nape of his neck. “Thought I’d watch the sunset,” Ethan says, moving to stand beside him, arms fanned out across the rail. “I’d never seen anything like it before I came here.” He stays silent for a while, and Will allows himself the view, the first lick of evening breeze against his forearms, his shirt cuffs trapped up about his elbows, the thick fragrance of fruit in the air from the garden below. “I’m sorry you’ve had to come back,” Ethan says quietly, glancing his way. “It’s not something I wanted for you.”

Will shrugs. “It’s fine,” he lies, glancing back across at Johnson’s villa. “No tall buildings, no helicopters, nothing ridiculously insane for you to throw yourself off of or into the path of or in front of or – ”

“I get it,” Ethan says, mouth caught in a small quirk.

“Just an intel grab, in and out, and then home again.”

“Simple,” Ethan agrees morosely, and Will sighs and shakes his head, chuckling under his breath at the gloominess in his voice. “My mother still wants to meet you, by the way,” he adds, and the sentence pulls Will’s chest a little tight.

“When we get back I’ll cook her dinner,” Will promises. “Awkward family interactions are my specialty.”

By now the light has almost faded, but he still catches the look of warm amusement on Ethan’s face, of unreserved affection. It’s not the first time he’s wished he could throw the job away just for this, but it’s stronger than it’s been in a while; Ethan’s face lit up against the skyline, free and unafraid. It’s not an option, though; it never has been. He knows Ethan couldn’t live without it. He allows himself a sigh, long and deep, tries to push out all his fears with it.

“I’ll take first shift,” Ethan says quietly. “You go get your head down for a while.”

Will nods. “But no staying up all night, and no – no abseiling, or parachuting, or hang-gliding, or – ”

“ – anything that involves death-defying leaps?” Ethan interrupts, grinning.

“Exactly,” Will replies, dryly. “Just surveillance.”

“I’ll try. Goodnight,” he adds, and pulls Will in for another kiss before he lets him go.

 

 

 

 

“In the van,” Will repeats, tone deadpan, expression incredulous. “You want me to stay with Benji in the van?”

Johnson is throwing the most ridiculously extravagant homecoming party Will has ever had the displeasure of observing, and that’s including Mumbai. Their intel suggests that the operation is largely to cover the drop with Jovanović, which means they need to be inside with their eyes on the prize all evening; Ethan bagged a job in the kitchens, whilst Jane wrangled an invite by flirting outrageously with Johnson over a busted engine the afternoon before; playboy millionaires always tend to have something in common, although Will’s still waiting for the day when it’s his turn. For now, apparently, he gets to chill in the van with Benji.

“Hey, don’t diss the van,” Benji says, raising his hands. “The van is cool.”

“First,” he says, jabbing his finger at Benji, “you are never allowed to say the word diss again, and secondly,” he continues, switching to Ethan, “there is no way in hell I am letting you go in that building on your own, not with half of the European underworld – ”

Ethan looks at him, eyebrow raised. “I’m not on my own, I’m taking Jane in with me. We need you out here to cover our asses in case Jovanović – or Johnson for that matter – makes a run for it. If he gets out of our sight tonight he could be halfway across Europe before we find him again.”

He knows he should bite his tongue, that what Ethan is saying makes sense, but still – Will shakes his head, knots his fingers together. “Ethan, I seriously think – ”

“Drop it, Brandt,” Ethan snaps, already on his feet, eyes on the door.

Will sits back, shoulders taut, lips tightened halfway to a snarl. Brandt? he thinks viciously, and Ethan knows it; he can’t catch his eye. “Fine,” Will mutters, all too aware he sounds like a kid.

“Fine,” Ethan echoes, rolling his eyes, reaching down to his belt to flick on his comms unit; the others follow his lead. “I’ll see you at 01:00 hours. If anything goes wrong, we reassemble at rendezvous Delta at 06:00. Comms check?”

“Friar.”

“Littlejohn.”

“Marion.”

“And Robin. We’re good. Marion, with me.”

He sends Will a final, tight look, licked with fury and the promise of an argument later, and the air in the room sits tight in Will’s throat. He should just let Ethan go, get the mission done, like he has a thousand times before, but the knots in his gut seem to tighten at the thought – he starts after them, wanting to say – something, but by the time he hits the corridor they’re already halfway down the hall; he gets a flash of Ethan’s expensive suit through the elevator door, and then nothing. Will stalks back into their room, scouring his face with his hand and letting loose a long, deep breath, tight between his teeth.

“Blimey, Will,” Benji says, “what the fuck was that about?”

Will shakes his head. He can feel his hands shaking – for fuck’s sake, he has to focus. “C’mon, let’s get packed up.”

The size of computer chips being what they are these days, trying to pinpoint the info exchange itself would be almost impossible; luckily, Johnson has done them a great favour in that respect by making it blindingly obvious. (“So overt it’s covert,” Benji had quipped, and then giggled to himself like a schoolkid.) As part of the homecoming celebrations, each guest is politely required to present a gift to the host, a requirement one could only make when amongst certain higher echelons of the rich – and Jovanović happens to have recently acquired for a sum more than Will’s quarterly paycheck ten times over a golden tiara with a gaudy, bright blue diamond the size of his fist and, at Benji’s best guess, the microchip secreted into the rim.

Their best chance of success comes after the handover but before Johnson has time to check Jovanović has come through; Ethan, therefore, has to undergo the usual gymnastics to get into the vault, get out the tiara, switch the chip for a dud, put it back, and get the hell out of there before Johnson decides to show it off, while Jane keeps an eye on the two of them and does her level best to distract or incapacitate them should he decide to bring it out ahead of schedule.

And Will stays in the van. As backup.

“Have you ever noticed a pattern with his codenames?” Will grouses, lounging across a chair in the back of the van, one foot on Benji’s swivel-chair to knock him around whenever he feels like he isn’t listening. “He gets Team Leader and Jupiter and Robin Hood, and we end up with – ”

“Comms clean, Littlejohn,” Ethan snaps in a crackle of static, and Benji sniggers.

Will shrugs, grinning. “See what I mean?”

Ethan ignores him. “Marion, are you in position?”

“Arriving now. I have eyes on the Prince.” Will and Benji watch through Jane’s eyes as she steps through the high, white-pillared entrance to the villa, and is greeted instantly by Johnson, smiling broadly at her arm.

“My dear, you look stunning,” he murmurs, and his hand disappears from Jane’s sight. Will had said much the same in the hotel room not ten minutes ago, but hearing it from this asshole’s mouth makes him want to punch him.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Will mutters, scowling. “You’re totally welcome to this one.”

“But where’s my present?” Johnson continues, mouth curved into a pout. “And where on earth are you keeping it in that thing?”

Jane glances around, attempts to look shy and private, and leans in. “It’s not something I can show you here,” she whispers. “Maybe later.”

Johnson’s face slides into a leer. “Definitely later. And for now, a drink?”

“Perfect. Lead the way.”

“What a twat,” Benji mutters, sidelining her feed to bring up Ethan’s. “Robin, what’s your progress?”

“On vault level. Following the Sherriff en route with the prize.”

“Buzz me when you arrive and I’ll guide you through.” Benji settles back in his chair and grins. “And now we wait.”

“And now we wait,” Will echoes, sighing, and scours his face. Every part of him feels edgy, jumpy, like there’s grit under his nails and he can’t shake it free.

“We could play a game if you like,” Benji suggests, who’s settled into surveillance with the comfort of routine. “I’m sure I have a pack of cards somewhere... or did I use them to glue that toaster back together? Well, there’s always the classics – charades, Twister, I-Spy – ”

“I-Spy,” Will repeats, deadpan. “We’re in a van, Benji, in case you hadn’t noticed. You seriously think we can play I-Spy – ”

They both hear it at once. A harsh, glottal sound, a choking of breath, a distinct thud of flesh. A sound Will knows from experience means someone just got hit across the neck and is now lying unconscious on the floor.

And one by one, the screens drop out to crackling black.

Benji’s on the comms in a heartbeat. “Robin, report – Marion, report in now, we have lost visuals, Christ – ” Nothing, nothing but static on every line – Will has his foot on the door already, kicking it open and swinging himself out. “Where the fuck are you going?! If they’re down, the regs say we have to – ”

“Fuck the regs, Benji! Get yourself out and to the rendezvous point and I’ll meet you there. Go!

Will’s launched into a sprint before he has time to check whether Benji’s followed through. They’re parked a block and a half away downhill in the wrong direction – fuck, too far, too far to run – and all he can think of is Ethan, Jane, sprawling on some godforsaken rich boy’s linoleum, dead, maybe dead, possibly dead, please don’t be dead, fuck, please –

He hurtles through the front door, nearly tripping up over his own feet, gun in hand, scouring the area. It’s empty. The huge, gaudily-decorated entrance, with its stupid fountain, wall-to-wall bar, parquet floor, cream-coloured gold-embossed wallpaper which had, no more than two minutes ago, been teeming with guests, is completely, utterly, fucking empty.

“You took your time,” says a voice from behind, and it’s the last Will hears before the prick of the needle in his neck.

 

 

 

 

Will wakes to the touch of cold concrete against his skin and Johnson’s severed head lying at his feet.

He closes his eyes in a heavy, forced blink, forces them to focus. No, not his head – more like skin, strips of skin, with eyeless sockets and thick, plastic hair –

A mask. Johnson was wearing a mask.

Every bone in his body goes ice-cold.

“And finally, he gets it,” says a voice from behind him, same as before. He can’t crane to see who; he’s cuffed to a thick, metal chair, bolted securely into the concrete. There is a moment of sharp panic when he realises the clothes he wears are not his own – but his totem still rests against his chest, a warm, familiar weight. He registers music on the periphery of his hearing; Piaf. “You’re a difficult man to find, William Brandt.” The music stops at its most raucous with a sharp klik from behind; light footfalls anticipate the slow movement of the man to stand in front of him. “Arthur still uses it, you know. Careless. He’s always had his habits.”

Will bites back a snarl, keeps himself calm, closes his eyes. Fuck, he hasn’t heard from Arthur in months, can’t remember the last time he spoke to him – it’s not unusual, it hadn’t worried him ‘til now, but suddenly there’s hot, tight fear gnawing at his insides. The man moves into view – tall, cropped blond hair, sickly pale skin pulled taut over his skeletal face, thick white scar slashing painfully close below his right eye across his jutting cheekbone – and every one of Will’s worst fears is realised.

Anthony Richardson.

“Ahh,” Richardson says languidly with a smile. “So you do remember me. Excellent.”

Will says nothing; he can’t form words around the lump of terror in his chest. Richardson’s smile lengthens, and he reaches for the remote balanced on Will’s lap to punch on a viewscreen embedded in the opposite wall. It takes a moment for Will to register what he’s seeing – the perspective is odd somehow, the image scrambled – and then he realises it’s the view from an eye-lens. From Jane’s lens. He resists the urge to buck against the cuffs, notices with desperate urgency that according to the automated stats display on the right-hand side she’s fine, a little freaked and probably a little bruised but fine. She’s only just woken up; she’s scanning the room, testing her restraints, feeling for damage in her own bones.

They both notice at the same time she’s not alone; Ethan is beside her, still unconscious, mouth gagged, slumped in his chair, a tender stripe across his throat already bubbling up into a bruise, and the sight kicks Will’s pulse up to a low, loud roar. His eyes flick to Richardson, watching him from across the room, the same goddamn grin still twisting his face. Will swallows thickly, takes a deep breath, waits for the next move.

He feels Jane tense as the heavy, rusted door clicks open across the room and a man enters, gun in hand. Will’s stomach tightens, a thousand threats simmering at the top of his mind, but he says none of them – he keeps his eyes trained on the screen, tries to identify the assailant, gather what he can, think of how to help neutralise the threat with something, anything. He tries to drown out the small, quiet voice reminding him he’s useless, useless, fucking useless, cuffed and pinned down behind a viewscreen, might as well be a thousand miles away. The man with the gun steps into the light, and Will has to choke back on a gasp as he watches himself cross the room, mind reeling in a downwards spiral of what the fuck – ?

Then he presses the gun to Ethan’s forehead and pulls the trigger.

Will doesn’t even know he’s screaming until he feels the hoarse rip of his own throat. His ears ring in the silence. Metal bites coldly against his arms and feet, slicing through the skin.

The viewscreen is dark. Richardson crosses the room and drops the keys to his cuffs into his lap. “That has just broadcast live to every screen in the IMF,” he says quietly into Will’s ear; his voice seems painfully loud and jarring. “So if I were you, William Brandt, I’d run.”

It takes him less than a minute to undo the cuffs, kick open the door and reach the street beyond. There’s no one in sight.

Will takes a look at the empty sky, flooding with the light of the new day. He runs.

 

 

 

 

He reaches the rendezvous with the new morning, the thin light acrid and sharp against his aching eyes. He kicks the door down; he had a key, but they had taken his clothes and everything besides. They hadn’t even given him shoes, and his feet throb and bleed thickly onto the slippery floor beneath him.

It’s empty. He doesn’t take the time to check whether Benji’s been; two steps through the threshold and he’s on his knees, forehead against the rough linoleum, curled as tight as he can go as the shock and terror spikes through him in vicious waves, leaves him shuddering on the floor. He stays there for longer than he knows, concentrating on the impossible pull and release of each and every breath.

It wasn’t Ethan. It wasn’t.

It can’t have been.

The next solid, real thing he knows is the butt of a gun jabbing into the crux of his neck. “Up,” a voice says, thick and distant as if underwater, and he registers it dimly, kicks his melted, aching muscles into action, hauls himself onto his stinging feet. “Hands against the wall.”

Benji, he realises, and drags his mind up from down below, flicks the switch on the deepest, most basic part of his brain. He listens hard, but only hears their breathing, no sound of footsteps outside the door, no crackle of mikes, no whirr of helicopter blades slicing the air. “Did you call me in?” he asks, and he has to clear his throat and say it twice; his voice is wrecked, rough and raw.

“No,” Benji says softly. “Jane’s gone, I think they cas-evac’d her at dawn. Will, I saw the video.”

His throat tangles around the words, thick and tight and heavy. “I didn’t – it wasn’t – ”

Christ, Will, I know, I know,” Benji interrupts, and sighs, dropping down to slide the gun along the floor; it hits the lintel across the room with a soft sound. Will turns around, leans back heavily against the cracked, crumbling plaster. “Masks,” Benji says softly, tone as heavy as lead. “Was Ethan – ?”

Will shakes his head once; neither yes or no, just a weary gesture. “I don’t know.”

Benji looks at him, long and hard. “It’s not just that you’ve been disavowed, Will. They think you’ve gone rogue. The entire IMF has turned into a hit squad looking for you. Will, what are you going to do?”

Will shudders out a sigh, scours his face with his hands. “I have an idea,” he says slowly, staring at the floor. “Someone who might be able to help. But it’s not – it’s not strictly speaking legal, so if you don’t – ”

“I’m with you,” Benji says quietly. “Just tell me what you need.”

Will feels a grateful smile pull at the edge of his mouth, and something slackens in his chest, as if some greater tension has been lessened. “For starters, I’m gonna need your cellphone.”

 

 

ZAGREB

 

 

Arthur stands in the warm shadows opposite a tourist’s café, fingers tattooing a rhythm on his wrist, eyes on the time shown by his cheap watch. Will’s inside; he knows this for sure, watched him cross the threshold not five minutes ago, but Arthur’s stuck standing here ‘til he gets the signal.

He’d been with Eames in Mombasa when he’d got the call. Not from Will directly, of course, his brother isn’t an idiot; no, a friend of a friend of a friend enunciated a string of seemingly gibberish numbers and consonants on a crackly, other-side-of-the-world type cellphone line. Translated, Arthur read emergency, Croatia, myself + tourist.

He left the same afternoon. He knows Will, and he isn’t the kind of guy to claim an emergency lightly.

Arthur has bolt-holes in practically every city, and those few he doesn’t, Eames does. He’s been to Croatia once before, but that was down at the coastline, working a job for an elderly heiress; they’re further inland, at the capital, the heart of the tourist’s quarter. It’s busy, the height of summer season; the ebb and flow of the crowd seems normal, but their exposure is setting his teeth on edge.

Finally, Will emerges from the café, coffee in hand and tourist in tow. He takes a minute to look the latter over; British, he’d guess from the complexion, obviously a field operative but not a natural build for it; technician, maybe. Arthur steps from the shadow, and Will notices him within moments. Safehouse three blocks east, Arthur signals. 64. He pauses, trying to work how to signal ‘Eames’, and settles for friend.

Understood, Will replies, and leans in to speak to his companion.

Arthur takes the longest route home he can devise, chops and changes half a dozen times, covers all points of the compass through alleys and along highways, making sure he loses any tail, trusting Will to do the same. By the time he reaches their safehouse the others are already inside; he can hear Eames making cheerful conversation with Will’s companion (he was obviously right about the British thing), but Will’s his priority.

He finds his brother leaning against the living-room window, gaze caught in the rough mess of scrubland which Eames’ estate agent had optimistically called a garden. Will grabs hold of him the second he gets him in his sights, tugs him towards him and hugs harder than Arthur can remember him doing for a long time. “You’re safe,” Will says quietly; his voice is shockingly hoarse. “I haven’t checked up on you – ”

“We’re okay,” Arthur promises. “We’ve not even taken any rough jobs for a while.” He takes a moment to study his brother, and he’s not exactly comforted by what he sees; tight shoulders, glazed eyes, mouth in a thin line. Arthur had known it must be bad, but to see him like this hits him hard. “What happened?”

Will sighs, long and slow, scours his face with his hand. “It’s Richardson,” he says eventually, and Arthur’s heart stops. “He’s got Ethan.”